Ah, the problem of leggings...or rather, The Legging Problem. I have been asked by fellow Notre Dame alumni and friends what I think about the letter to the editor bearing this name. Mary Ann White, wrote to the Observer, the student newspaper that she "thought about writing this letter for a long time. I waited, hoping that fashions would change and such a letter would be unnecessary — but that doesn’t seem to be happening. I’m not trying to insult anyone or infringe upon anyone’s rights. I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings." Her piece has been met with backlash and protest, some applause, questions and over 700 comments. Here is mine.
First, I would like to separate the letter from the problem. Why? Because I want White as well as all people from South Bend to San Francisco, Seattle to Savannah to know that the struggle is real. Leggings are a problem. Here's how. Here's why.
I teach at a Catholic high school that has a dress code. On a near daily basis, I give detention to students who choose to disregard it. Our students are prohibited from wearing jeans, leggings, and shirts without a collar. Skirts must be of a certain length. Faces must be cleanly shaven. Plunging necklines are unacceptable. I have not asked the deans for the numbers of students who violate our policy, but I am confident that not a day goes by where one of our 1400 students has not done so. Chief among the infractions are students in leggings.
However, when I talk to my students about the importance of following and being in dress code, I never do so because of the affect it will have on the opposite gender. Although that may or may not be true, such a principle will fall on deaf ears. My point will be lost. They won't have it. I'm not sure if that is "the nature of the teen" or "kids today." Regardless, we have a dress code because we have determined that it is important to hold one another up to certain standard. And if you care to re-read how I described the aforementioned dress code, not one rule applies to just girls or just boys. The standard is equal opportunity.
This standard—our dress code— is evaluated and reviewed every year. We have made changes and accommodations in the 16 years I have worked at St. Ignatius. In the classroom, leggings is not one we are willing to make. Yes, they are comfortable, yes, they are popular but we have decided they do not meet the criteria we have deemed fit for this particular environment. Conversely, students are free to wear leggings for athletic practices or fine arts performances; many wear them on retreats.
Furthermore, I have accompanied many student groups on one or two week immersion/service trips. Some agencies have asked us not to wear leggings at their respective service cites or in their given communities. Others don't mind. We always default to the standard set by our host agency. I value these experiences for many reasons, but one is that students are reminded that school is not the only place that may ask something of them in how they present themselves. My golf team might be more aware of this reality than other athletes as it is not uncommon for clubs to uphold a dress code. Although many dress codes are more lax than they once were, they have not gone away entirely. Many jobs require uniforms, several for good reasons. Oh, and last time I checked, most athletes find putting on their uniform—as standard as it gets—to be an honor. But I believe Ms. White's rationale misses the mark. I believe her letter was a missed opportunity. I would not be surprised if she disagrees.
Rather than single out one gender versus the other, I wish the letter would raise a question. I believe asking "how ought men and women present themselves in a formal religious setting like the Basilica?" is a worthy question. I would like to hear from young people whether or not anything goes. Should it? Why or why not? I know that Sunday mass in most student dorms is very casual. My friends would wear sweats and even pajamas to the 10 pm mass in Farley Hall. Everyone was comfortable sitting on the floor, on pillows, on benches against the wall. No one was naked. I wouldn't give leggings a second thought. The Basilica however IS different to me. The liturgy is much more formal. The music and the atmosphere ask something of participants that is different than mass in the Crypt or in the dorm—perhaps that includes how we present ourselves. Maybe not. Regardless, I'm grateful we have so many different opportunities to come together for the Eucharist AND that people do!
I think it's okay to invite a community to consider how we relate to others and affect others in light of how we present ourselves—both for better or for worse. White leaves these words unsaid, but sexuality is indeed a powerful fire that everyone grapples with understanding, expressing, promoting and respecting. How men and women choose to dress is an important component of wrestling with this fire. That struggle is real, too.
In about an hour from now, the Notre Dame women's basketball team will play Stanford University in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tourney. I have no doubt those women will be in uniform. They will wear blue and gold for Our Lady or green for the Irish and I will cheer for them with pride and the hope that we prevail. Should a male student or a female student for that matter be in the audience cheering without his or her shirt on, I will raise more questions. Time and place. Context. All of it matters. Should it?!
Leggings at ND