Long after we let go of the exes they belonged to, we hold onto their hoodies.
You know the ones: They live in that drawer full of summer camp T-shirts that are too ugly to wear in public so they're repurposed as pajamas. They come out on rainy TV marathon nights but also complete your effortless, cool-girl grocery store look. I have gone so far as to hide a particularly good boyfriend sweatshirt before an impending breakup to avoid returning it. Call it theft, but if you didn’t swipe a boyfriend’s hoodie, was he ever really your boyfriend?
Selena Gomez gets it. On Tuesday, the singer was photographed wearing recent ex-boyfriend Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd’s oversize neon windbreaker while riding her bike in LA. Fans speculated that she may be be struggling to move on, which threw a wrench in their #Jelena premonitions. What do you mean? you could almost hear Justin Bieber shouting into the void. So we inquired on his behalf: What's behind the ex-boyfriend hoodie's enduring allure?
“Boyfriend clothing is what we call a transitional object,” says psychotherapist Jenn Mann, author of The Relationship Fix. She compares a lover’s borrowed pullover to a child’s security blanket. “It allows us to bridge the gap between us and another person.” Consider the boyfriend sweatshirt a fuzzy upgrade to the Letterman jacket. During a relationship, it serves as a symbol of a what’s-mine-is-yours kind of intimacy. It announces that you’re proud to represent your man and that he’s willing (if begrudgingly) to provide for you. It’s old-school but primal.
In your beloved’s absence—especially if that absence is made rather permanent—the boyfriend hoodie takes on another function, subbing in for their physical and emotional embrace. “We hold onto an object that smells like them, reminds us of them,” which is comforting, says Mann.
Even if you’re set on ending a relationship, that craving doesn’t fade overnight—and neither does the lingering scent of an ex on his clothing, which is why its power peaks after a breakup. “Scent has a lot to do with how we fall in love. We are hardwired to favor the smells of men who have immune genes that differ from our own,” says Mann, referring to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a group of proteins that increases our sexual attraction to people with diverse immune systems. (The idea is that they would combine to yield fitter offspring—sexy!)
In that way, Mann says, a sweatshirt acts as a “pheromone sponge.” And catching a whiff of it can feel almost like a drug, “a quick fix to keep you emotionally content in the moment rather than experiencing the ups and downs of the breakup that are necessary to move beyond [it],” says sex coach Amy Levine.
But a boyfriend hoodie is more than just a Band-Aid. It can be that, sure, but it can also be a step toward moving on, or a way to honor your past, even the bits that didn’t work out as planned. It proves that what was was real—so real that you gained some things and gave away others. And it acknowledges that the way you let go of someone is in parts, not all at once.
“I am very happily married, and I still have a box of photos and love notes from some old boyfriends going back to my high-school sweetheart, which my husband helped me organize when we moved because I'm a sentimental person,” says sexologist Jill McDevitt, Ph.D. “A shrine is a different story. But mementos, particularly of a relationship that occurred at a pivotal time of one's life, does not necessarily mean you are not over them ... [it] is a reminder that you had love in your life.” That's a nice thought to scrap book in the back of your dresser.
So what of Selena's zip-up? “It could very well be a sign that she still has feelings towards [Abel],” says Mann. Or it could be intended as a message, most likely that she needs time and space to heal. “With the rumors flying about her and Justin Bieber spending time together again and potentially getting back together, it may be a statement to the public, saying, ‘I'm not done with The Weeknd, and there's no future for me and Justin.’ ”
And then, the twist: Just days after Gomez was spotted in the Weeknd's jacket (and after this article was originally published), the "Wolves" singer was photographed leaving Justin Bieber's hockey game wearing her former flame's jersey. Her tune may be changing.
Of course, there's another factor to consider with any hoodie heist: Sometimes you just have an incredibly chic ex-boyfriend.