Each day I embark on a delicate routine of managing the anxiety that I have not grown up to be a person whose life calls for buttons. Our culture’s parameters for success demand a career, a high income, the production of wealth for the machinery of capitalism—but here I am immersed in the sticky, unstructured world of stay-at-home motherhood and mostly unpublished writerdom.
In a society that doesn’t place much value on art or on traditionally feminine roles such as child rearing, I still feel pressure to meet definitions of success determined by an economy that no longer really exists. Is it any wonder that just putting on real pants feels like an accomplishment?
This is where comfort pants come in: sweatpants, pajama pants, yoga pants, fat pants, whatever. Wearing them too often can feel depressing, even suffocating, but to change into them at the end of the day is to feel liberated all at once from the stresses of daily life, from meetings and mood swings and voicemails from my student-loan provider. Because I wear mine only at home, away from the public gaze and its implicit expectations of frictionless adulting, the response has become Pavlovian: Letting loose my muffin top from the confines of zippers and slipping into my comfy pants conditions an instant drop in blood pressure. My legs thrill to the luxurious contours, that familiar swaddle of ice cream–stained cocoon, and the rest of me follows suit.
The fabric of these pants is now thin from wear, the drawstring disappeared long ago, and when I carry my phone in my pocket, they struggle to accomplish the basic anatomical coverage that makes pants pants. (“Mom, I can see your tushy!” my children proclaim with glee.) One of the knees is so worn that you can tell how recently I shaved my legs. These pants are, in short, an embodiment of the tradeoff between comfort and any semblance of social acceptability.
Which is, perhaps, part of what makes me love them so much. My friends voice similar sentiments: “My sweats are law-school sweats with bleach stains, and they give me camel toe,” Sarena tells me. “Hot mess party of one,” says Tamara, of what she calls her inside pants. “And yes, they are the best.”
Even writer Lauren Groff, who bought cashmere sweats from Hammacher Schlemmer to cope with an onslaught of stressful news and posted about it on Twitter, speaks of her pants with a mixture of affection and embarrassment. “I’m ashamed to say that after I ridiculed the washable cashmere pants and then bought them in a fit of despair, I haven’t taken them off for a month, maybe two,” she told me. “I bet my loved ones could tell you exactly how long I’ve been wearing them.”
My own pants, woven in the mountains of northern Argentina, where my husband grew up, have traveled across hemispheres to become mine. Everyone in the family has a pair, a technicolor array of hues and patterns; when my mother-in-law presented me with my own, an intricate weave of colors that converge into red and pink stripes from far away, I knew I had been accepted into the tribe.
Even when they come from no farther away than your local shopping mall or the nearest e-tail fulfillment warehouse, though, comfort pants can be a reassuring talisman of acceptance, even if it’s just our own acceptance of the need for self-care—not the glamorous, Instagram-ready kind, but the real kind, the homely kind, the kind that acknowledges that our comfort, to say nothing of our mental health, genuinely matters.
As the poet Audre Lorde famously said, “Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” To me this has never felt truer than it does right now, when the problems of the world weigh on us not only emotionally and spiritually but physically as well. But that’s where the comfy pants come in. To cast off our anxieties about our uncomfortable clothes is to declare that we deserve to relax and be cared for, to say out loud that we matter in a world that so often says we don’t.
Originally published in the first print volume of Woolly, which you can buy here