Last month, Maryann White, a mother of four sons and a practicing Catholic, wrote a letter to the editor to The Observer, the student newspaper of a fellow Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame. In her scathing letter, White described a Mass at Notre Dame in which women sitting in front of her wore leggings. “I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds,” she wrote.
A woman’s decision to wear leggings does not mean she is responsible for the actions, let alone thoughts, of men. Instead of criticizing women for their dress, those like White should support others in their self-expression however they feel comfortable.
White’s letter is an all-too-familiar sentiment for many girls, indicative of a larger culture in which women are taught to dress in a way that is not distracting to men.
As a 13-year-old girl, my choice of clothing served as a form of expression during a formative time. But I was soon criticized for my self-expression. My middle school dean — a woman and a mother — called me and 20 other girls into her office to tell us our leggings were “too revealing” and “too distracting” for our male classmates and teachers. Being told this as a young girl shocked me because I was not dressing for anyone else but myself; what I was wearing was not outwardly inappropriate — it was comfortable. Her words told me that my form of self-expression — a sweater and leggings — could be a source of attraction for others.
The sentiment that White and my middle school dean share is that women are responsible for the thoughts of men. However, it is impossible for women to control those views and opinions, and vice versa. Women should not have to restrict our style, comfort and expression in order to spare men from distraction. We should not have to dress for anyone but ourselves, and we certainly should not compromise out of concern for what others think.
It is not the job of mothers concerned for their sons’ dignities to dictate what women wear, nor are their temptations our problem to solve.
Leggings are not inherently sexual, but women such as White are legitimizing the sexualization of the garment. I may wear leggings to the gym or on a cold day, and I do so because it’s practical and comfortable, not because I’m attempting to draw attention to my body. I respect myself and my body by dressing the way I want.
Leggings are multifaceted — worn as athletic apparel, for style and for comfort. Still, White argues that comfort is not a justification for wearing form-fitting clothes; wearing pajamas or being naked is also comfortable, she argues, but “we” — women — don’t walk around naked out of respect for ourselves. However, it is completely illogical to equate the comfort of leggings to nakedness. Leggings are clothes.
In response to the letter, female Notre Dame students protested by wearing leggings, posting pictures with the hashtag #leggingsdayND. Students reclaimed what White sexualized in her ironic attempt to address the sexual connotations she associates with leggings.
Although White targets the women of Notre Dame, the themes of her letter are heavily centered in what she perceives as Catholic values. However, Catholic values are rooted in acceptance, not criticizing others for their choices. White imposes her interpretation of Catholicism onto others, which is contrary to the core belief that people should be free to make their own decisions without judgement from others.
School deans and mothers should be figures who girls look up to and learn from. If the role models of women insist we cater our lifestyles to men, girls will be unable to create a sense of self and identity. We cannot control — and should not be responsible for — the way others think. The right of comfort and self-expression is inherent to our identity. As students and women, we can and will wear what we want without being criticized for it, and we should continue to support each other in the self-expression that is most preferred.
Julianna Yablans is a freshman in the College.