Romper Recollections

What Women Really Think
Sept. 14 2009 5:06 PM

Romper Recollections

Looking at the photo of a romper embedded in Jess's original piece on same, I was transported back-not to toddlerhood, but to junior high school in southwestern Virginia in the 1970s, where, during gym class, public school students were obliged to wear what I now understand was a romper. The girls were, anyway. I can't remember what the boys wore. Probably something that genuinely permitted athletic activity. As I recall, the romper was light blue and stiff, doubtless because it was made of polyester. It had front snaps rather than buttons, and, I always thought, felt vaguely like a prison uniform. The only structural difference between it and the checked high-fashion getup featured alongside Jess's post is that the bottom was elasticized, which added to the humiliation, giving it an additional bloomers-like quality. From their side of the playground, the boys would laugh at us. It was hard to blame them.


I associate that romper with so many other inexplicable developments that characterized the school day back then, some of which students inflicted upon ourselves, some of which were visited upon us by administrators in that transitional, considerably more directionless, era. Students calling in bomb threats from pay phones, causing the rest of us to have to shuffle outside and wait in line on a small bluff near some woods, while the premises were checked. Boys playing mumblety-peg with pocketknives flung into the dry red clay of the baseball field. Girls dealing pot in the locker room showers. Teachers paddling students with hole-riddled wooden paddles as punishment for infractions like skipping class-gym teachers being the designated paddlers, inevitably, regardless what class you had skipped, presumably because paddling was part of a gym teachers' job description in the South back then. I associate the experience of having romper gym uniforms with the experience, during a different mod, of watching impeachment proceedings on the television in current events class, and realizing the world was changing, quite possibly for the better. I associate it with "women's lib" debates in which we, the girls, annihilated the boys. I associate it with kids playing boom boxes in class and one poor English teacher so hapless that the class turned its collective back on her and just chatted amongst ourselves. I associate it with one girl who liked to crouch in the trash can. Three years of wearing rompers and learning next to nothing, except how to whistle loudly by putting two fingers in my mouth. Which, come to think of its, I learned how to do during gym class, wearing that romper.

What were education bureaucrats thinking, back then? What was anybody thinking? I wonder if my daughters' gym clothes-a far more sensible shirt and shorts, exactly like the boys', a small triumph of Title IX, which, as it happened, passed the year I started junior high school, not that anybody told us or, God forbid, taught us this-will, years from now, carry so many evocative associations. Thinking about that romper, and all the other strange and random things that life and school threw at us during that time, I actually feel sort of nostalgic. Not enough to buy one now, though.

Liza Mundy is the director of the Breadwinners and Caregivers Program at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex.


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