Fashion

03.27.14

The Politics of Leggings in Middle School

A recent controversy erupted after an Illinois middle school told some girls to stop wearing leggings because they were too “distracting” for their male peers.

It’s been a controversial year for clingy pants. A year ago this month, Lululemon caused a ruckus when it was revealed that some of the brand’s yoga pants were completely see through. The company’s founder made it worse in November when he suggested that not all customers had the physique to be wearing the pants anyway. Now, an Illinois middle school’s spandex crusade has managed to make leggings the center of a debate over school dress codes, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming.

Earlier this month, several girls at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Ill. were told they would no longer be allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants to school because they were “too distracting to boys.”

In a letter sent to families on March 18, Haven Middle School Principal Kathleen Roberson said that there was no official ban, but rather, “if leggings are worn, a shirt, shorts, or skirt worn over them must be fingertip length.” That same day, 500 students signed a petition against the ban, some wore leggings to school in protest, and other students held signs saying “Are my pants lowering your test scores?”

Despite the principal’s words of assurance, parents and students were still outraged by reports that some girls had been told by teachers that they could no longer wear the pants to school, especially when some female students have alleged that a “no leggings” rule was being selectively enforced; only those who were more developed or curvier were being told to change their clothes.

The national media quickly joined in the leggings-ban backlash, some rebuking Haven Middle School for even having a dress code at all. Amanda Hess at Slate wrote that “by emphasizing the disruptive consequences of leggings, administrators are attempting to fix boys’ juvenile behavior by placing an unfair burden on the girls who are supposedly distracting them.” Rebecca Rose at Jezebel said that, even if Haven doesn’t have an all-out ban on leggings, but just regulations on what tops must be worn over them, the school is still in the wrong: “The problem is, yet again, another institution has decided it’s easier to punish girls for what they wear because there is a chance someone of the opposite sex might sexualize them. This is dumb, dumb, dumb.”

For decades, American students have challenged dress codes. In the landmark 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines, students successfully challenged a school ban on wearing black armbands, which were a sign of protest against the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.”

“Fear of ‘distracting’ boys is never a good-enough reason to enact a rule on female students.”

Recently, however, challenges to school dress codes have been less about political expression and more about sexual. Haven is not the first school that has pitted students versus the administration over spandex. In April 2013, a California junior high banned leggings because, as the principal said, “when the girls bend in leggings the threads spread and that’s really when it becomes a problem.” Rockport High School in Massachusetts also outlawed the pants earlier this month for reportedly the same reason (though the school cooled down on the crackdown within days).

Up until recently, it was largely unquestioned that schools could ask their students to dress in certain ways without risking a public outcry. In the early aughts, when I faced my own Northeastern liberal-minded, public middle school’s dress code, neither the girls nor their parents thought twice about being told tank top STRAPS? had to be an inch thick, and that we, as one guidance counselor told us, should be aware of too much “jiggling.”

Telling students that revealing too much skin was distracting and detracted from a positive learning environment was not seen as a baseless restriction or a sexist request. The fashion burden did tend to fall disproportionately on female students, but it made sense—we had more clothing options that could be considered “revealing.”

However, those unquestioned dress codes were a good decade before the first SlutWalk took place in 2011, shining a light on the unique pressures placed on women to dress in a certain way so as to avoid sexual attacks. Previously, no one thought twice about telling girls to dress modestly in order be taken seriously or to be protected. Suddenly, that standard was being questioned in a dramatic way.

And with this shift, the sartorial onus was no longer on women to dress in a “chaste” or “modest” way lest they risk tempting men or setting off their “uncontrollable” violent urges. Claiming a girl was dressed like she was “asking for it” has never been officially acceptable in the court of law, and now, thankfully, it’s also looked down on in the court of public opinion.

Parents and students of Haven Middle School are right to push for a shift away from victim-blaming and slut-shaming in dress codes. Fear of “distracting” boys is never a good-enough reason to enact a rule on female students, not to mention the upsetting allegations that the code was only selectively enforced based on the students’ body types.

Yet, while the movement to end victim blaming is essential, what has been lost in the conversation is that there are some environments in which there are more appropriate ways to dress. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in saying it is inappropriate for men and women to show up in shorts to a formal office. 

Yes, a leggings ban takes the dress code a little too far, especially when it’s enacted for the wrong reasons. But a dress code in and of itself, when it is equally enforced and applied to all students, still serves an important purpose. It is neither sexist nor objectifying to admit that certain items of clothing can diminish a professional or educational environment. Unfortunately, leggings just aren’t one of them.