Very few items of clothing illicit such a visceral response as low-rise jeans. Mention them to any millennial and you’ll likely be met with an eye roll, a faux gagging gesture or a more aggressive response like, “They should be considered an actual crime against women,” as one colleague put it. Despite the fact that so many people unabashedly loathe low-rise jeans, trend forecasters and data from numerous shopping-trend sources suggest they’re coming back into style. And with them also comes the sexist, fat-phobic, hypersexualized anxiety that surrounded the trend in the first place back in the early 2000s.
I distinctly remember the frustration I felt as a young woman attempting to make myself look like Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan—lamenting the fact that my stomach wasn’t flat like theirs and how cropped tees worn with low-rise jeans made me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable rather than trendy or cool. Not even the largest size at Abercrombie & Fitch could make it over my athletic thighs, and yet, all I wanted was to squeeze myself into them in an attempt to fit in with the trend du jour.
And I wasn’t the only person doing their body and mental health a disservice by forcing myself into an unrealistic mold. Body positivity (and body neutrality) simply wasn’t a thing back then, so when celebs and fashion magazines told us that low-rise jeans were the way to go, everyone believed them. Today, younger generations sporting these Y2K trends for the first time might think of them as just another fun throwback style, but for millennials, low-rise jeans come with a surprising side of emotional baggage.
It’s not lost on me that the restrictive denim style came into popularity at a particularly bad time for young celebrity women. Stars like Bynes, Lohan, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson were scrutinized within an inch of their lives while simultaneously expected to maintain bodies just on the right side of concerningly thin—and to show them off without looking too sexy. It was an impossible standard—one that still exists in different forms today—and it no doubt contributed to very public breakdowns, like Lohan’s DUI arrests and Britney Spears’s infamous run-ins with paparazzi.
So, yeah, it’s incredibly confusing to me to be living in an age when the #FreeBritney movement gained enough national attention to cause a reckoning within media about how she and other young women were treated back in the day, and yet the spring 2022 runways were populated by too-thin models rocking impossibly low jeans with crop tops. How can we both throw our support behind Britney and her contemporaries while embracing this outdated, and frankly sexist, look?
It would be one thing if low-rise jeans were being worn in a new or interesting way. In fact, I not so long ago wrote an essay about how I was excited to rock low-rise jeans in their “new” form—looser legs, a roughly seven-inch rise instead of three inches, and paired with tucked-in turtleneck tees and loose button-up shirts. (As someone with a short torso, I have never been a fan of high-rise jeans and was eager for the fashion tides to change in my favor.) But recent ad campaigns, runway shows and young celebrities haven’t gotten creative or tried anything new. They’ve simply recycled the same bad bag of tricks first popular in the early aughts. Many of the women sporting low-rise jeans in 2021 look like they’re wearing a costume, cosplaying as Christina Aguilera or Lindsay Lohan. “The double standard is infuriating,” says Anna, assistant commerce editor at PureWow. “I know damn well that if a plus-size woman wore them she’d be shamed by internet trolls, but Bella Hadid wears them and everyone’s like ‘omg queen,’ and it’s total B.S.”
Low-rise jeans are a reminder of a time when anything other than thin, young, white bodies wasn’t considered beautiful, and when it was considered a totally acceptable pastime to publicly judge and shame women, weighing in on “who wore it best” or making wild assumptions about their drug use or sex lives. “Ugh, I can feel my stomach muscles clenching at the very thought of wearing low-rise jeans,” Emily, a millennial advertising exec, told us. She has absolutely no plans to try the 2021 version of the trend, mostly because they bring up old feelings of body dysmorphia, but also because they’re not actually comfortable.
Aside from the sexist and fat-phobic associations of the trend, low-rise jeans are wildly impractical for anyone who plans to sit down, bend over or even simply wear underwear. This is precisely how something like “whale tails,”—an actual trend where the Y-shaped waistband of your thong peeked out from your low-rise jeans—came to be. Commerce editor Liv spoke about the joy of discovering denim with a rise higher than four inches. “I do remember getting my first pair of mid-rise jeans from American Eagle, and they were my absolute favorite because they were so much more comfortable.” And senior editor Dana added, “I feel like the last time I wore low-rise jeans, the rise was legit two inches, and now my grannie panties extend way over that so, you do the math.”
When asked if they would try low-rise jeans once more now that they are older and wiser, almost every single woman I talked to said absolutely not. Reasons ranged from “I don't want to give this style of jeans the time of day; my legs (and midriff) deserve better,” to admitting “my understanding of fashion and dressing for my body type has changed quite a bit since the sixth grade, and I no longer wear items that aren't flattering for my body.” As for the brave souls who didn’t outright reject the trend, even they had caveats. “Look, if you want to wear low-rise jeans and you feel good in low-rise jeans, then by all means wear them. Even if you don’t have a six-pack or hip V,” said Ivy, independent jewelry designer. I agree with Ivy—if the throwback trend makes you feel hot (to borrow from another early aughts starlet, Paris Hilton), then go for it. But don’t be surprised when I and my fellow traumatized millennials decide to opt out of ever showing off our whale tails now and forever.