The Real Reason Every Millennial Woman Is Scared of the Return of Low Rise Jeans
The law of fashion cyclicality guarantees that sooner or later every generation will be forced to reckon with some of the worst trends from their teenage years suddenly becoming cool again. For many millennials, that time is now and that existential sartorial threat is the return of the low rise jean.
Along with the return of other 90s and early-aughts favorites like flood pants, tiny sunglasses, and chokers, Gen Z has also ushered in the revival of this divisively low-slung trouser. A style that to my 30-something-year-old brain belongs exclusively on the bodies of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Keira Knightly circa 2000–2008 and nowhere else. Which is perhaps why along with the reemergence of these jeans has come a whole lot of very triggered adults, much to the confusion of everyone born in the 21st century.
Gen Z has rightfully mocked their elders on TikTok for this overreaction to a fashion trend, accusing millennials of body-shaming, stifling their self-expression, and just generally being OTT about something that’s really no big deal. But what the youth of today don’t understand is that this reaction isn’t coming from a place of reason, but from one of distress. When many of us first encountered low rise denim in the 2000s, we too wholeheartedly embraced the look as a direct rebuke to our mothers’ collections of basic Gap boot cuts with waistlines up to their bellybuttons. Something that, believe it or not, was considered deeply uncool at the time and is also now the only kind of pant I wear.
But while TRL and Delia’s trained every 12-year-old I knew to believe that your pants were totally lame unless you felt the constant threat of exposing your entire butt crack to your classmates, what we didn’t realize at the time is that this wasn’t about a trend in jeans, but rather a trend in bodies. What was cool wasn’t about where that waistline sat on your torso, but rather how nonexistent that waistline could become.
The female teen idols we saw on TV and in tabloids were praised for their hip-less, boyish figures and washboard abs—the aesthetic of the “heroin chic” models that dominated the runways in the 90s trickled down to the masses. In fact, I’m not even sure I was aware of the concept of different body types and builds until I was in college. I now look back at those paparazzi photos of the girls Rachel Zoe used to dress with their spindly extremities and gaunt faces, their sample size clothing billowing off their bodies, and realize that my entire generation was awash in this imagery and taught to idolize these women without a single conversation about the eating and drug disorders so obviously being glamorized.
To compound the popularity of this particular physique, the 90s and aughts also brought a renewed focus on the quick-fix, fad diet. South Beach and Atkins were words regularly bandied around my school’s lunch room and exercise was discussed only in the capacity of how long you had to run on a treadmill to burn X number of calories. I still recall the jealous stares directed at those pre-teen girls whose moms let them bring in cans of Slim Fast for lunch instead of having to eat the standard cafeteria fare.
You have to remember, this was also a time long before online shopping was the norm, especially for clothing. The internet was a place relegated largely to 8-bit joke websites, late night AIM conversations, and illegal Napster downloads. Trends were finite, handed down to us like gospel from Seventeen and Teen Vogue, and social media was barely even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. In fact, I never even heard the word Facebook until I was a senior in high school. All of this also meant your options for clothing were incredibly curtailed by where you lived and what the local mall had to offer. I still remember the first time a store opened that offered sizes larger than 12 in my small town in New Hampshire. I was 16 years old. If that doesn’t put the limited offerings available into perspective perhaps the fact that every girl in my high school considered Anthropologie to be the height of sophistication will.
While today’s youth beautifully promote body-positivity, unapologetic self-love, and embracing differences of all kinds, our generation was promised the empty ideal of “girl power” while simultaneously being force-fed celebrities, media, and clothing that told us we were infinitely flawed, unloveable, and ugly for having hips, an ass, a muffin top, or just the wrong kind of chunky highlights. And finding an alternative to that discourse or those celebrities also wasn’t as easy as opening an app and hitting follow on a couple of plus-size influencers.
Disordered eating and body dysmorphia are obviously not conditions exclusive to millennials, nor the inevitable outcome of only having one style of hip-squeezing, stomach-exposing denim available to you your entire adolescence. However, it does feel like both were subconsciously baked-in to my generation before we had a chance to realize just how much damage was being done to our young psyches and it’s taken us until now to begin the process of collectively unpacking that harm. So if you’re feeling attacked by a millennial’s critique of your new favorite jeans, please remember we aren’t trying to stop you from doing what you love. We’re trying to stop this cycle of trauma from hurting yet another generation of vulnerable teens without considering that they might already be savvier than we ever were.