Leggo My Leggings!

by | April 29, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Me as a child wearing "distracting" leggings

by Jarrah Hodge

My close childhood friends will tell you I was very attached to wearing leggings when I was growing up. They were so comfortable it took several years before I could even understand why someone would choose to wear jeans. I was definitely not trying to make a statement or attract any sort of attention by wearing them, so it was particularly surprising to me that one school in Halifax, Eastern Passage Education Centre, considers leggings “distracting” and has moved to enforce a dress code banning girls from wearing them as pants. From CTV:

“Tights which are being worn in an inappropriate manner are not acceptable for school. If students choose to wear tights, they should have a long shirt or sweater to cover the front and backside. Yoga pants can fall into a grey area, depending on the style and manner in which they are worn. The administration will use their discretion with these cases and have the conversation with the student.” […]

Monday, more than 30 girls wore tights in spite of the rules. “We’ve been wearing leggings the whole year, then all of a sudden we’re not allowed to, and guys wear pants with their underwear hanging out,” says Grade 9 student Darian Mansfield.

“It’s not showing anything,” says Grade 9 student Jessica Cole. “I’m wearing like, a longish sweater and it’s not showing anything at all.”

Yoga pants a grey area, people?! Yoga pants?!

I’ll note Eastern Passage isn’t the first school to go this route. A few schools in the US have singled out leggings and yoga pants for being “immodest” or too “form-fitting” and they were also banned by an Ottawa-region Catholic school last year.

I’m generally opposed to school dress codes anyway, but two things about this really irk me.

First, it seems to be about reading adult sexuality onto girls’ clothing choices. Leggings have been around since at least the 13th century and have been worn around the world by both men and women. There is nothing inherently sexual about them. If there were, they would hardly have been suitable as a piece of military clothing, which they were throughout the first and second World Wars.

Just because when you look up “yoga pants” on YouTube you get a bunch of videos of “hot girls” in yoga pants (as I found out) doesn’t mean that’s why everyone chooses to wear them. Same with leggings. And we’re talking about kids who are tweens and in their early tweens. I’m not naive – I wouldn’t be surprised if some girls are getting dressed up in leggings or yoga pants partly to be attractive, but to read that intent onto every girl in the school is logically questionable and kinda creepy.

And where do you draw the line? Girls are exposed to all kinds of media messages telling them their self-worth is defined by appearance. You can’t possibly ban all the things a girl could possibly do in an effort to make herself more sexually attractive. If you’re concerned about the pressure on girls to be sexy, you need to deal with that culture and its ideas through media literacy, not banning individual items of clothing that may or may not be manifestations.

My second big problem with the leggings ban is it places the blame onto girls for being “distracting” instead of onto those who might be getting “distracted” spending all their time ogling the girls. The school danced around the issue, saying only it was distracting “to the learning process”. Karen Green at Canadian Family writes she thinks there’s a subtext to what Eastern Passage is arguing: “The real answer, I think, is distracting to the boys. Possibly even the male teachers. That seems a more likely answer to me. And a much more disturbing one.”

I’m inclined to agree. The fact that no comparable rules were set out for boys shows the hallmarks of that same old attitude that “boys will be boys”, that they will see girls as sex objects while it’s up to girls to uphold their own honour and fend off advances.

I would love to be wrong. I would love Eastern Passage to whip out some peer-reviewed study showing that leggings and yoga pants adversely affect educational outcomes. Because if that’s not the case it’s only a small step from “if you wear yoga pants you’ll distract the boys” to “if you wear a skirt you’re asking to get raped”.

Now the school isn’t quite there yet and it has a chance to back off. They need to think about those 30 or so girls who defied the ban and ask themselves whether it’s really worth pushing them even further into a culture that tells them what they wear determines how they deserve to be treated.

For the rest of us, we can watch this student documentary featuring a whole bunch of distracting, leggings-wearing high-schoolers:


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