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The Real Reason Students Are Fighting for Leggings

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April 4, 2014

Most middle school girls learn the tricks of avoiding being sent home because of their clothing choices. They can scrunch up shoulders to avoid the fingertip rule, hide from the teacher that walks around with a ruler to measure tank top strap width, or sneak a sweater in a backpack for when the principal is around. Schools have had the right to implement dress codes since Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Dress codes are put in place to decrease class room distractions. They also can help students from a lower-income background receive less shame if they cannot afford the expensive popular clothing brands. However, the intentions have mutated to have sexist connotations and lower a student’s self-esteem.

Two years ago a principal in Minnetonka, Minnesota sent an email to high school parents saying to urge students to not wear leggings or spandex as pants. He cited it as distracting to a “wide variety of girls and boys.” However, the conversation at this school did not revolve on the unfair burden that females face in making their clothing appropriate. Most news outlets (FOX, the Today Show, and RYOT) discussed how girls should be able to wear what they feel comfortable in. The conversation revolves around ways female students can make the school day easier for males. Female students are told that the pants are “too tight” and “distracting for males”.

Fortunately the conversation is now shifting. Students are standing up for themselves and recognizing that it is not simply an issue of dress codes and comfort. When administrators selectively enforce these codes and leggings bans, it opens up a wide variety of discrimination. Students can be selected based on their development, size, race, or sex. Most times, male students do not have these dress codes enforced as females are told to “cover up” or be sent home.

At Rockport High School in Massachusetts, a ban on leggings was already in place that the school decided to more strictly enforce. During an all-school assembly, female students were notified of this change after the boys had been released from the room. The principal of the school said that the leggings worn as pants were distracting to the male students. The next day, over 20 female students wore leggings in protest and were later sent home. These students felt that there was an unfair burden placed on them to not let boys see the definition of their bodies.

In Evanston, Illinois over 500 students signed a petition to reverse a leggings ban and many students picketed the schools. One sign read, “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” The conversation at Haven Middle School not only involved the way the girls are being shamed into thinking it is their fault that boys stare at them, but teachers have taken it upon themselves to decide who looks appropriate. According to students at Haven, teachers have been talking about “appropriate body types for leggings and yoga pants and leggings”.

Students should not be blamed for distraction around sex. When school officials try to reinforce beliefs that the women dress invites distraction or disturbance, it perpetuates to problem of victim blaming and slut shaming. Schools fall into the same category then of those who tell women that if only they dress differently or protect themselves more they will be safe rather than addressing the perpetrators and culture of violence more effectively. Students across the country recognize these connections and know they are not to blame. It is necessary that we have more students like those in Rockport and Evanston to change the conversation around not just leggings in school but the culture of dress codes.

Authored by Kendall Clement. She is the communications intern at Choice USA for the semester. She is a junior from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

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