While attending Mass at the University of Notre Dame last fall, Maryann White saw something that horrified her: leggings.
A group of young women, all clad in clingy Spandex and short tops, were sitting directly in front of her and her family.
“I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds,” the self-described Catholic mother of four sons wrote in a letter to the editor that was published by the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, on Monday. “My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body — certainly when I’m around (and hopefully, also when I’m not). They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterwards. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.”
Begging female students to “think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead,” White added that she had hoped leggings eventually would go out of style. Maybe, she proposed, Notre Dame women could start a trend by simply choosing not to wear the wildly popular stretchy pants.
Her plea appears to have had the opposite effect: By way of responding to her complaints, more than 1,000 students at the private Catholic university in South Bend, Ind., indicated that they planned to wear leggings to class this week.
Debates about whether it’s appropriate to wear casual, form-fitting yoga pants outside of the gym have been raging for years. Numerous high schools have courted controversy by banning leggings in recent years, claiming that they are “distracting” for male students and teachers. But college campuses, for the most part, have remained a haven for those who choose to wear comfortable Lycra or Spandex bottoms to class, meals and campus activities.
In her letter, titled “The legging problem,” White described the pants as “a problem that only girls can solve.” She claimed that the depiction of women in movies, video games and music videos made it harder for Catholic mothers to “teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters” and should be treated with respect. Although she acknowledged the main reason college students like to wear leggings — namely, they’re extremely comfortable — White went on to imply that it wasn’t too different from walking around without any clothes on at all.
“We don’t go naked because we respect the other people who must see us,” she said, adding, “I’m fretting both because of unsavory guys who are looking at you creepily and nice guys who are doing everything to avoid looking at you.”
That line of argument didn’t go over too well on campus.
“Join in our legging wearing hedonism!” one student wrote on Facebook, informing the “legging lovers of the Notre Dame community” that Tuesday would be “Love Your Leggings Day” at the university. “Or not, because what you wear is completely your own choice!”
A student group, Irish 4 Reproductive Health, similarly declared Tuesday to be “Leggings Pride Day.” On Facebook, the group explained that White’s letter, although well-intentioned, “perpetuates a narrative central to rape culture” by implying that women’s clothing choices are to blame for men’s inappropriate behavior. People of all genders were invited to “make a conscious choice to wear leggings and thus affirm your right and ability to do so,” then post photos on social media.
Although more than 1,000 people responded to the group’s Facebook event, it’s unclear exactly how many took part. Dani Green, a PhD student in English at Notre Dame and a founding member of the group, told The Washington Post in a Twitter message that it had been “a little difficult to tell what was protest and what was everyday legging-wear,” in part because the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
Yet another informal demonstration took place Wednesday, the Observer reported. Named “The Legging Protest,” it was organized by Kaitlyn Wong, a senior who wrote, in parody of White’s letter, “I’m just a Catholic woman who feels the need for one specific type of pant that provides utmost comfort: leggings.” She asked people of all genders to express their solidarity by wearing their favorite pair of leggings that day. Again, more than 1,000 people expressed interest.
“Unfortunately,” one participant wrote, “I could not find Maryann on [Facebook] to invite her and her four sons to ogle us on Wednesday.”
Wong told the paper that she had organized the event in hopes that it would lead to a larger campus discussion about White’s comments, which she had found troubling. “You know, we were having these conversations in my class, but I wanted this to be a more widespread conversation,” she said. “Even if it’s not a ‘protest,’ having people talk about it is better than sitting around and doing nothing.”
The Post was unable to locate White or her sons for comment on Wednesday night.
Although some online commenters suggested that the letter could have been the work of a troll trying to stir up outrage, or an early April Fools’ Day joke, Green told The Post that it was “unfortunately . . . kind of on brand” for the campus community. She pointed to a 2011 letter to the editor titled, “Ladies, be decent,” in which a then-junior man railed against an unnamed woman who supposedly displayed a “lack of class and common sense” by wearing a skintight outfit to the dining hall. “If a woman apparently doesn’t respect herself enough to present herself in a non-risqué manner in everyday life, I cannot trust her to respect me,” the letter said. “I’d be wary about pursuing anyone like that.”
But those views evidently don’t represent the majority of the 12,393 students who attend Notre Dame. Several male students told the Observer that they thought that White’s letter had unfairly maligned men, while others wrote rebuttals arguing that college students should know how to behave and be capable of treating women with respect, regardless of what they’re wearing.
“To my female classmates, wear what you want,” Shane Combs, a senior at the university, wrote in a letter to the editor that was published Wednesday. “How you dress for Mass is not a reflection of your character, nor does it disqualify you from dignified and respectful treatment from the rest of us.”
Amid the flurry of letters condemning White’s views, two freshmen did spring to her defense, arguing that her complaints about leggings were simply representative of a generational divide, and not an indication that she thinks that women who wear revealing clothing are asking to be sexually assaulted.
“Custody of the eyes and chastity of thought are difficult to accomplish for any man,” Maria Keller and William Gentry wrote. “We members of the Notre Dame community have obligations of love to one another, which includes being our brothers’ keepers. It is no assault on women’s rights to suggest that we ought to dress modestly to help our brothers out, just as we should consider what we eat around our Muslim friends when they are fasting for Ramadan."
Meanwhile, another Notre Dame mother, Heather Piccone, questioned whether White’s sons had ever taken their shirts off at the beach.
“Women find male chests and abs attractive like men find women’s legs attractive,” she wrote in a letter published Tuesday. “By her own definition and logic, any male out playing on a sunny day at the park with his friends should be ashamed of himself, and as a mother she should have properly raised her son not to tempt my daughter with his body.”
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