Designer labels -- ultra-chic of the fashion scene and the bane of parents -- may be in for a run for their money.
An alternative on the school scene this September is "I Am Somebody, Period," a grass-roots rebellion inspired by Cincinnati housewife Ruth Underwood to fight the unspoken command of the designer message: "You are somebody if you wear these clothes; you are nobody if you don't."
"We're not against good clothing, but let's get the labels back on the inside," declares Underwood, 59, who with parents, ministers and teachers is leading a reverse-status war to "tell their kids that they are worthwhile.
"There will always be fads," she concedes, "but this is more than a fad.
"Not all advertising is bad; the advertising we're opposed to is advertising that carries the message, 'You will be the envy of . . .' because the unspoken word is 'you're nobody without it.' "
"You've got the kids divided into groups: one with labels and one without. The kids come in in the morning and size each other up by what's on the seat of their pants.
"This," claims Underwood, who has been monitoring advertising for 20 years, "is a kind of discrimination -- psychological slavery . . ."
Kids, she says, have taken these subliminal messages -- that label defines the person -- "to heart." She gives the example of a second-grader taunted by classmates because his new school shoes had no visible label. His parents wound up buying him a second pair of shoes -- with the exterior label -- to protect their child from rejection.
"That's one pair of shoes," says Underwood, "that was sold because of peer pressure. Parents are going without things that they need to keep their kids from being rejected."
With a no-interest loan of $3,500, the "I Am Somebody, Period" campaign was launched two weeks ago in the Cincinnati area. The nonprofit group placed an advertisement in The Cincinnati Enquirer's Sunday editions at a cost of $833. A feature story the next day detailed the group's campaign, which includes the proclamation by Cincinnati Mayor David Mann of Oct. 24-30 as "I Am Somebody, Period" Week.
Among those asked to participate is nationally syndicated columnist Erma Bombeck, whose school-year-opening column read:
WANTED: One child with uncommon courage who is willing to enter a school year wearing clothes without designer labels.
Potential is there for being a legend in your own time.
On the other hand you could die from rejection.
"We are answering her," says Underwood, with a letter posted last Thursday that reads in part:
We write in answer to your request:
We have more than one child. Where would you like to have them sent? Or would the enclosed picture do?
After the Enquirer story, Underwood says she received 50 or so calls in the first day-and-a-half from counselors, teachers and parents with stories to tell and share: "What is out there is rage waiting to be harnessed. People who were suffering in silence now realize that other parents are struggling with the same thing in their homes. They tell me, 'You have crystalized the feelings, the frustrations we have felt.' "
"I'm going to turn the world upside down," says Underwood, the mother of three grown children, a grandmother and wife of a United Dairy Farmers controller. "Literally. I've got the green light and I'm there.
"I'm going to get to the grass-roots, in language that I know they'll understand.
"People talk about labels as if they can't do anything about it. As if they're here to stay, like the weather. But I'm saying, 'Hey you can turn this thing around.' "
For more information, write: "I Am Somebody, Period," Inc. P.O. Box 12367, Cincinnati, Ohio 45212. Available for roughly at cost are logo-imprinted buttons (35 cents), shirt iron-ons (50 cents), bumper stickers (donation) and T-shirts ($3.75).
Three to four weeks for delivery.
Other materials are available to parent, teacher, church or youth organizations interested in starting their own groups.