In a Teenage Waistland, Fitting In

By Natasha K. Warikoo
Sunday, July 31, 2005

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 bad."

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 carefully.

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 higher.

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 aspirations.

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.

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

© 2005 The Washington Post Company