The Bluff of Competence

Much as I hate to admit it, day-old underwear have found a place in my wardrobe once or twice over the past year. They’re a way of conceding to myself that I’m not a fully functioning adult, while still allowing me to pretend outwardly that I’m a respectable and somewhat mature person. Unlike tangled hair or shirked homework, they’re a sacrifice that goes unnoticed, a delightfully covert outlet for irresponsibility. They fly under the radar like a superhero in the night.

Getting people to think you’re wearing clean underwear has nothing at all to do with your actual laundry habits. It’s an attitude, a lifestyle, a certain bravado conveyed through well-timed leg spreads and assertive posture. In college especially, the concept of clean underwear somehow transcends material reality and stretches into the realm of ideology. And while other shortcomings aren’t so easily disguised as day-old drawers— my neglect of the gym, lack of scholarly direction, and wilting houseplant, for example— at least people still think I’m the kind of person that always wears clean underpants. That this illusion is a boon to my reputation speaks to the low standards of college students, but I’ll take what I can get.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t make a habit of rewearing clothes, least of all underwear. It’s a coping mechanism long chronicled by middle-school boys and disorganized travelers alike, and I prefer not to count myself in the ranks of these troubled demographics. Instead, I imagine myself as part of a community of particularly well-organized and accountable people that occasionally reach into the hamper and do a clandestine crotch-sniff before deciding that yesterday’s pair is clean enough to allow its wearer to pass as a self-sufficient human. On this view, my lax laundry skills put me in the good company of millions of ambitious, talented people worldwide. The idea prompts a bizarre sense of community.

Alas, while I’d like to be as proactive as the people in Oxi-Clean commercials, it’s not going to happen. As it stands, I don’t even match my socks. But my barely disguised plebeian negligence is a nice reminder that, in college and in life, most people are just trying to seem like they know what they’re doing. Or at least I hope that’s the case, because if everyone is as sure-footed as they pretend to be, I’m definitely behind the curve.

Knowing that I’m not the only one to break out the occasional pair of inside-out undies is a welcome revelation of shared ineptitude. It’s confirmation that, despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise, we’re all wavering on the edge of getting by. After all, that girl from Econ can’t possibly volunteer for Meals on Wheels, co-chair the film club, be president of program council, and wear clean underwear every day without fail, can she? No. She can’t. And that’s reassuring. Because however you look at it, we’re all just trying to cover our asses.