I can't remember the precise moment it occurred to me that my sweet 5-year-old daughter was a victim of designer jeanitis. Oh, there were signs. She'd been begging for months. "Mommy, buy me a pair of Jordache jeans." "Mommy, buy me a pair of Bonjours." "Mommy, buy me some Calvins."
At $30 a pair? Eagle squeezer that I am, my response was an emphatic "No." That, I figured, takes care of capitalistic degeneration in my house.
It might have, if Maia had not received two pair of brown corduroy Calvin Klein jeans, via the hand-me-down-express. I weakened. Well, what's the harm? Then, I saw my preschooler flinging her three-inch plaits, flouncing her nearly nonexistent hips and suggesting amiably, "Call me Brooke." Lawd have mercy, my child was coming down with something.
Living bras I've had experience with; living jeans don't make good house guests. And these labeled creatures were alive; they had names. "Mommy, can I wear my Calvins?" My child pronounced it in a juvenile imitation of La Shields, sounding as if two dudes named Calvin were hanging around, waiting to take her to the disco.
"I'm not ready for this," I said, dialing the number of Goodwill Industries. Then I hesitated, caught on the fence between permissiveness and authoritarianism, a cold-turkey cure or a lingering illness. "Father," I prayed, "if this is just a stage she's going through, give me a sign." The line was busy.
"Okay," I told myself, "the pants stay, but I can't allow her to go through life thinking that a patch on her behind makes her, or anyone else, special." I lectured daily that all jeans were created equal. Although my daughter agreed with me, her questions showed she wasn't a true believer. "May I wear my Calvins to church?" "Mommy, why can't I sleep in my Calvins?" I put a hand to her forehead--and mine--and began playing Edwin Hawkins night and day.
Then a good-intentioned, but misguided relative presented Maia with a pair of Sergio Valentes, king of denim decadence. It wasn't until I witnessed the reaction of my daughter's little friends ("WOW! Maia has SERGIOS!"), saw the unmasked admiration in their eyes and the naked vanity in Maia's that I realized I'm not the only parent with a major health problem on my hands.
"Roll with the punches, Momma," my girlfriends advised, switching away in their Bonjours, Sassoons and Teddy's. The fashion choices of worldly women don't concern me. Lawd knows I've tried on enough jeans and left enough stores in despair to realize it's celebration time when some blue denim fits the teardrop curves of a black bottom.
What I'm concerned about is my child's values, her mental health. How can I explain to a kid whose mind is as undeveloped as her 20-inch behind that she doesn't need the look, that some hair-tossing, crooked-hipped, teen-age sex symbol isn't an image for her to emulate? Why should my child be free advertisement for Gloria, Sergio, Calvin or anyone else? I felt like burning those pants.
I had to come up with a cure; my child was ailing. "Mommy," said Maia one night, "tell me a story." Suddenly, I saw the light.
King Midas came to mind immediately. "Once upon a time," I began, a little unsure of myself, "there was a little girl who had so many pairs of designer jeans she could hardly close her closet door. Still, she wanted more."
"What was her name?" asked Maia.
"Brooksie Mae Jackson."
"When Mrs. Jackson got her RIF notice from the Labor Department, she knew there would have to be some changes in their life style. 'Brooksie Mae Jackson,' she said, 'you aren't getting another pair.'
" 'You're mean,' wailed Brooksie, starting to cry. 'I wish that everything I touch would turn into designer jeans.'
"Now who should be listening but a fairy, also unemployed. The little guy decided to teach Brooksie Mae a lesson.
"The next morning when she opened her closet door, the handle turned into a pair of Sergio Valente jeans."
"Wow," whispered Maia. I decided I'd better speed up the action. By the time Brooksie Mae's toothbrush and wash cloth had turned into jeans and she had to go off to school without breakfast because her shredded wheat had become blue denim, Maia was clucking her tongue in sympathy. "The kid's in trouble," she said.
In my version of the golden touch, Brooksie Mae turned all of her classmates into replicas of Jordache, Gloria, Teddy and Bonjour, just by giving them five.
"When you want a friend, you sure can't play Uno with a bunch of labels, can you?" I asked. Maia solemnly shook her head.
"Well," I continued, my voice dripping Mister Rogers, "by the time Brooksie Mae left school, she was terribly upset. She was hungry, thirsty, lonely and confused. As she climbed the steps to her house, she called: 'Mommy! Mommy!' Her mother was about to give Brooksie Mae a big hug, but as soon as she touched her daughter, she turned into a great big pair of Jordache jeans.
"Brooksie started to cry," I continued, making some appropriate boo-hoos. "Well, it just so happened that the tears were magic and they broke the spell. 'Oh, Mommy,' Brooksie Mae Jackson said when she saw her mother coming back to life, 'I'll never ask for another pair of designer jeans in my life. The next time you have $30, let's invest in a fund, or take a trip to Nigeria.'
"The next day, Brooksie took all the designer jeans in her closet and cut off the labels. And you know what she found out? There wasn't much difference in the pants. Her mother helped her stitch great big red X's on the hip pockets and whenever one of her friends asked what kind of jeans she was wearing, she told them Brand X. That's the end."
Designer jeanitis is a serious malady. In my daughter's case, I can't say there's been a miraculous cure. After all, what is a bedtime story against the powers of Madison Avenue? Still, I have noticed some small signs of progress. For one thing, my child rarely flounces and flings anymore. On her own, she's begun referring to her brown corduroy jeans as "the corduroy jeans" instead of "my Calvins." Since the story, she's been asking to wear her jeans with the flowers on the back pocket; the Sergios have been lying in the drawer for weeks.
Maybe Maia's designer jeanitis would have diminished on its own, but I see too many teeny boppers freaked out on a fad to trust the healing powers of Father Time. In this mixed-up world, there are all kinds of things--like a handful of labels--that will make children sick and grown folks lose their religion. But with a little fantasy and a lot of faith, common sense and Brand X, we're not going to backslide.
Bebe Moore Campbell is a Washington free-lance writer.