Sameer Rao went from hiding his figure out of insecurity and fear to embracing himself and the pants he loves.
I can only imagine what people think about me when I walk down the street. I’m a South Asian, bald guy with a bit of scruff, thin-wire glasses and a commonly-noted spring in my step that often contradicts the pained or contemptuous expression I keep on my face in public. If I had to venture a guess, though, I imagine they’d look at my tapered pants and reduce my complicated personality into one character judgment: Look. At. That. Fucking. Hipster.
Honestly, I can’t blame them. I certainly fit many other defining characteristics of this otherwise unfairly-homogenized group. I wear a lot of band shirts and flannel, obsess over “important” artists that most people wouldn’t recognize, criticize contemporary political crises from the safety of conversations with my peers, and have spent the past few years floating between occupations while harboring an unreasonable hope that I might make it in a rock act. I even drink PBR from time to time, and don’t mind it at all (gasp!). I suppose that alarms a lot of people, if only because of what it’s connected to in the popular discourse. Many contemporary writers worry about my generation, saying that we avoid confronting reality, value identity construction over ambition, and live lives as fragmented and disconnected as the social media options we worship; if any of that’s true (and trying to articulate why those writers are wrong requires an article unto itself), it’s most clearly embodied in the hipster.
Although a lot of young men have incorporated aspects of hipster fashion in increasing years, including increasingly-slimmer pants, few take the full dive toward skinny and slim-fit pants. Somehow, that seems to be today’s male-style Mason-Dixon line, and it was only until last year that I was on the other side. I admonished my classmates who wore those drainpipes, wondering for whom they were trying to look so cool and if their indie rock-show dancing was so lame because their pants had damaged valuable nerves. The truth is that, for better or worse, my contempt masked my envy, and crossing that divide was the final step in me actually accepting myself.
I’ve always been a very skinny dude with a tiny waist and insane metabolism, and internalizing certain ideas of what that meant has was severely detrimental to my self-image. In junior high, I was moving towards punk fashion (which probably would’ve pushed me towards skinny jeans eventually), but fought a double-sided battle against home and school that made defining my style pretty difficult. One of my clearest memories of junior high was coming down the stairs with my hair gelled into light-spikes I donned a plaid shirt, unbuttoned over a logo shirt, and below-the-knee shorts with long socks. I thought I looked like one of the guys from Blink-182, which made me the coolest person in the world. Of course, my mother screamed at me to get back up and change, and I hastily put on the most boring outfit I could think of. I still don’t remember why plaid over logo tees was such a crime, but it was.
Since then, junior high involved a difficult set of style negotiations, trying to appear a little punky and avoid being called gay by my classmates while wearing something my mother wouldn’t object to. She loved to buy clothes from Abercrombie, and constantly supplied me with slimmer pants that I avoided like the plague. Preppy clothes contradicted my personality and interests, firmly rooted in rock music and a coolness around reject status, and I grouped those skinnier pants in that category.
It went deeper than that, though – I hated being skinny, and tried everything I could to downplay it. It was so intimately connected to my lack of worth – I couldn’t carry heavy things, and I wasn’t a natural athlete, so my adolescent masculinity was always in question. Even as I embraced reject status, I was obsessed with my image and what people thought of me. I tried to downplay my body as much as possible by not wearing pants that drew too much attention. Baggy pants made it painfully obvious that I had something to conceal, and skinny pants made it look like I was proud of my androgynous figure, so I went with boot-cut and regular-fit pants that sat somewhere in the middle.
Somehow, that taste stuck with me even as the ascent of emo bands and fashion-conscious rappers like Kanye West preceded the rise of hipsterism. So when my male friends started wearing skinny jeans and (on occasion) girls’ pants, I distanced myself as much as possible. I mean, come on, were they trying to look gay? Ironically, my pseudo-preppiness (if you see pictures from that time, you could maybe call it “metrosexuality”) was a stalwart against this embrace of fashion. If I was going to be skinny, I’d at least look composed and mature instead of rebellious and histrionic. Again, I was running away from my image every way I could, so insecure about my status as a real man that I had to define myself as something, anything other than these freaks with the twig-leg pants.
By college, hipsterism was a full-blown cultural force, but that wasn’t enough to make me comfortable with my body. At age 19, I made a conscientious decision to no longer be skinny. I started an intense weight-training regimen and put on nearly 20 pounds of muscle in a short period of time. I felt strong, like a man for the first time in my life, and immediately attractive and confident. I did better with women, and commanded respect everywhere I went. Still, I wasn’t happy, because I wasn’t accepting what I actually looked like. Trying to fight nature and redefine my body completely would have its price. Combined with a sharp decline in my metabolism and college dining center-nurtured eating habits, I put on even more weight. Suddenly, my clothes fit poorly, and I felt like I was bursting at the seams. But isn’t this what I wanted? I wasn’t really skinny anymore, right?
After sustaining an injury to my back, I started to lose weight at a pretty quick rate. Graduating from college took me away from the subsidized weight room and high-calorie meals, so I started to naturally return to something like how I looked before. On a whim, I followed a friend’s advice and, swallowing my pride, entered a thrift store to purchase some skinny jeans. Trying them on, I couldn’t believe how good I looked. Was this the self-acceptance I had been chasing all my life? What was I running from this entire time? Are my legs supposed to breathe this well?
I realize now that people’s opposition to hipster fashion might have something to do with how accepting male skinniness helps redefine masculinity. If there’s any notable contribution from that cultural movement, it’s that men of all shapes and sizes, can be stylish and claim their manhood with pride. It’s given guys like me, who innately hated the more loutish aspects of popular masculinity, a reason to be happy that they don’t look or act like the stereotype.
In a roundabout way, wearing skinny jeans made me proud to be a man. So, I don’t care if people think I’m a hipster. I’m happy who what I am, and have no problem sharing it with the world.
Photo credit: Flickr / Ryan Abel