I am cutting the tags off my sons' new back-to-school clothes, muttering curses at the lords of industry whose marketing brilliance holds me hostage. I don't mind the brilliantly colored, oversized boxer shorts each of the boys has chosen, the baggy soccer shorts and multi-pocketed cargo pants, but when I am forced to caress a Nike swoosh or the insidious encoded script of Adidas emblazoned across their T-shirts, I want to scream.
"A shirt is a shirt," I snarl. "Some scumbag who mass produces these shirts in the Philippines or China with grossly underpaid laborers is making a fortune selling this logo to kids like you at inflated prices!"
The boys smile serenely as they pull on their new T-shirts on, rubbing their hands over the evil rubber stamps across their chests. When school starts, they will join the legion of boys across the country who feel confident and smart wearing the familiar flag of athletic superiority and "just do it" swagger, the rounded check mark that promises excellence in all things.
Later, when I have glumly given up the battle and resigned myself to the omnipotence of that corporate emblem, I am struck by a memory of fashion slavery that embarrasses me to the core.
It is 1967. I am entering eighth grade in Jackson, Tenn., the middle-sized town where my family relocated just a year before. I have given up romping in the creek with the neighborhood boys and have decided I will become more like the girls in Jackson who are voted "little sister" by high school fraternity boys. The day of their coronation the local newspaper prints detailed descriptions of the gowns they will wear at the formal dance: Suzanne has chosen an off-white organza gown with pearl-encrusted bodice, a low back with covered buttons. These are the girls I long to walk down the hall with, our curvy calves and swaying asses the pinpointed object of attention of the boys who walk behind us.
These girls dress like their mothers, women who sip coffee and play bridge at linen-covered patio tables next to the pool. They shop at an exclusive little boutique located across the highway from where I live. I have saved my babysitting money all summer long to shop here for an outfit that will make me feel like one of them. The coveted label reads "Villager."
I search through the sale rack and find a dress I can afford -- a narrow, floral-print cotton shirtwaist dress with dainty tucks up and down the front. My hips are too wide, causing stretched gaps in the buttonholes below the waist. I cinch the woven straw belt tightly around my middle. I look like an underdeveloped June Cleaver with the hair and complexion of Pippi Longstocking. I proudly carry my purchase home, swinging the buff-colored Villager bag in wide arcs. I wear the dress once a week until cold weather comes, feeling squeezed and misshapen, determinedly hiding my discomfort as I sashay down the school hall with my new friends.
As I wash my sons' purchases, I remember the time I felt most comfortable returning to school in new clothes.
It is the beginning of second grade. My mother lets me choose the fabric for the back-to-school outfit she will sew for me. Over the summer I have shed my long ponytail for a spiky, short "pixie" haircut. I choose a bolt of cream-colored cotton imprinted with hundreds of swinging brown monkeys. My mother turns it into a bouncy skirt and blouse ensemble. I walk across the street to my school feeling as if I could swing on the bars with one arm, hang from my toes. My monkey dress is cool and soft, like the underside of a sheet. When Art Slaughter and his gang of hooligans play chase on the playground before the bell rings, I can outrun them with ease in my monkey dress.
This year, my sons will swagger to school feeling like Michael Jordan. They will enter the throng of bodies bigger and stronger than theirs and they will feel disappear into the sea of Nike swooshes and Adidas logos. They will feel as if they can jump higher and run faster. And who knows, maybe they can.
-- First published in September 1997. The Eastburn boys, now in high school, have foresworn clothes with logos and join the throngs of satisfied thrift store shoppers seeking polyester treasures, comfortable castoffs and bizarre T-shirt slogans. Their mother continues to just keep her mouth shut.
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