[Paleopsych] WP: In a Teenage Waistland, Fitting In

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In a Teenage Waistland, Fitting In

     Disrespectful? Some legislators say yes. Kids say that's not their

     By Natasha K. Warikoo
     Sunday, July 31, 2005; B01

     Last year, as part of my doctoral research, I spent a semester
     observing teenagers at a multicultural high school in Queens, N.Y. One
     day as I walked down the hall, I noticed a security guard telling a
     student that the do-rag on his head was "a violation." The guard
     proceeded to fill out what looked like a parking ticket. I asked
     another student what was going on, and he told me that the school was
     cracking down on dress code infractions; three breaches could earn a
     suspension. His Jamaican-born mother, he later said, didn't like him
     wearing do-rags because police might interpret them as signs of
     delinquency, "especially on a black male like me." He'd already been
     stopped several times to be checked for drugs and, once, on suspicion
     of stealing the bike he was riding. His own explanation for the
     do-rag, however, was simple: On days he didn't comb his hair, he used
     a do-rag to cover it up. It was his solution to a bad hair day.

     As July slips into August and "back-to-school sale" signs start
     popping up in mall windows, clothing-based disagreements between
     adults and teens -- over what's appropriate and what's not -- will be
     heard in households across the nation. Some of these discussions will
     be no weightier than the "flip-flop flap" that occurred when a few
     members of the women's lacrosse team from Northwestern University wore
     stylish variations of casual footwear to the White House a couple of
     weeks ago. Others will be decidedly more so: Many schools, shopping
     malls and other public spaces have developed rules regulating teen
     dress. Earlier this year, even some state lawmakers tried jumping into
     the fray, as legislators in Virginia and Florida proposed so-called
     "droopy drawers" bills, which would have levied a $50 fine on anyone
     caught exposing underwear -- an act that's almost a given for girls'
     low-rise pants and boys' baggy hip-hop-style jeans. Both bills failed,
     but that doesn't mean another won't reappear: A state representative
     in Louisiana proposed a similar bill in 2004.

     Adults, it seems, are seeing rebellion, disrespect for authority or
     even criminality in those thongs and overlarge pants. Algie T. Howell
     Jr., the state legislator who introduced Virginia's bill, said he
     decided to propose it after seeing a parade of baggy jeans at a visit
     to juvenile court. A vote for the bill, he said was "a vote for
     character." Closer to home, one student told me that his mother
     "thinks that if you wear these kinds of clothes you are going to turn

     But how true is that interpretation? As part of my research on teen
     life, I spoke to hundreds of high schoolers in both the United States
     and Britain, asking, among other questions, about their clothing
     styles and what they mean. The surprising answer: While there'll
     always be the odd, message-sending troublemaker -- like the young
     woman in Tifton, Ga., who wore a T-shirt referencing her principal's
     DUI arrest ("Don't Drink and Drive") -- for most teens, adherence to
     "dangerous" dress often signals an eagerness to conform, both within
     their peer group, and in the future, as adults.

     Unsurprisingly, most teens bristle at the idea that they're being
     judged by their clothing. And for urban teenagers, especially boys
     like those at the Queens school, this sort of misunderstanding can
     have serious consequences in their interaction with law enforcement
     authorities and educators. At best, it fosters a feeling of being
     excluded. One ninth-grade student, a devoted hip-hop fan, recounted an
     incident at a pharmacy a few days earlier, when a boy wearing what he
     called "tight-tight clothes" was allowed to wander freely through the
     store, while he and his friends, in much looser attire, were watched

     Girls also told me they felt misunderstood. One ninth-grader who
     described her style as "rock and punk," a rarity in her school, told
     me that "some people" think her black nail polish and dog collar
     "shows that I am a rebel . . . [But] sometimes I rebel and sometimes I
     follow the rules." We met in her honors English class; her 89 grade
     average put her in the top third of her class. So while she was
     setting herself apart in her hip-hop-dominated school, the rebellion
     was only a few polish-coats deep.

     Another girl, a well-manicured 11th-grader with straightened,
     highlighted hair, abundant gold jewelry and a cell phone permanently
     attached to her tight jeans, told me, "Some people think I look
     stupid, because of the way I dress. They think . . . 'She wanna look
     good all the time and she don't have any time to concentrate on school
     . . . .' But that's not me." She's a B student, and told me that her
     current goal was to be less social in order to raise her average even

     When I asked teens in the schools I visited -- large, urban, featuring
     a multicultural student body -- to describe their style, "hip-hop" was
     the most common response. Along with peers, R&B singers and rappers
     ranked among their most common fashion influences. In their CD
     collections, artists such as Usher, 50 Cent, P. Diddy and Ludacris
     took top spots.

     This connection between rap music and hip-hop fashions may be part of
     what makes the mainstream nervous about obviously urban fashions. Rap
     music is seen as the harder side of hip-hop, and a study published in
     the American Sociological Review found it to be one of the few genres
     widely disliked by well-educated Americans -- even those who claim
     diverse music tastes. Another piece of evidence often cited against
     the over-large pants look is a commonly cited theory of its origin:
     The look may have been started by men in jail who didn't have belts to
     hold up their ill-fitting clothes.

     Yet this association, often at the forefront for adults, tended to
     escape the kids I spoke to. Like the boy above, whose mother was
     afraid he'd turn "bad," many said they wore the pants just "because
     they're more comfortable." Most rap-favoring students had similar
     aspirations to others students I met. Across the board, 90 percent
     said they believed they'll attend college. And, like their peers, rap
     fans aspired to be scientists, stockbrokers and lawyers, among other
     things. Moreover, though schools sometimes impose dress codes in order
     to ban gang identification, many boys I spoke to told me they actually
     use their clothing to signal a disassociation from gangs -- choosing a
     do-rag instead of a red or blue bandanna, for example.

     Given the risks of being misunderstood by adults, why do teens dress
     the way they do? In a nutshell, for status. Most of us would like to
     be seen as hip and cool by our peers, but for certain teens, this may
     be the only aspect of life they can control. Uncool middle-class
     adults can draw upon their wealth, education and contacts to improve
     status -- they can find a better job, buy a bigger house, work longer
     hours for more pay. But for teens -- especially those from poorer
     households-- these means are for the most part unavailable. Hence,
     peer status really matters. It doesn't, however, preclude other

     Contrary to what adults may believe, these kids don't think it's
     uncool to do well in school. As one 16-year-old, whose parents
     emigrated from Guyana in 1982, said: "The people that do good and come
     out of here [high school] in four years, they are highly respected.
     But the people that come with big book bags . . . those are considered
     geeks." Success, then, was defined as being "able to juggle
     everything." In other words, kids who are failing academically aren't
     choosing to reject school and what it has to offer; they're having a
     hard time "juggling everything." Those who do well academically but
     not with their peers are labeled geeks; others fail in the world of
     adults, never learning to hoist their pants or off-the-shoulder shirt
     when the principal walks by, or to wear more appropriate attire at a
     job interview.

     Kids need guidance, then, not on how high to wear their pants or what
     styles supposedly aren't conducive to learning, but rather on how to
     balance their need for peer respect with their desire for adult
     success. For this, they may want to look back on a previous
     generation, the members of which were labeled teenage delinquents when
     they first took up a uniform originally created for miners and
     cowboys. These were the baby boomers, of course, in their ubiquitous
     jeans -- designer versions of which now sell for upwards of $200 a
     pop. Remember that the next time a teen's underwear peeks at you above
     his or her waistband.

     Author's e-mail :

     [2]natashawarikoo at hotmail.com

     Natasha K. Warikoo is PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University
     and a lecturer in U.S. studies at the University of London.

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