The mom begged female students to stop wearing leggings on account of the distraction they might cause for her boys and others.
“I bet her sons aren’t too happy about that,” my daughter ventured.
I’ll say. Assuming that the letter is real, and that the author’s sons can read, chances are roughly 100 percent that these young men — once they recover from paralyzing embarrassment — will at least consider having their names changed or joining the French Foreign Legion. In fact, I’m at a loss to think of anything more horrifying to a teenage boy than having his mother discuss, in front of the entire school, whether he does or does not notice the “blackly naked rear ends” of the young women in front of him at church.
But this mom is not the only American worried about the impact of stretchy yoga togs on impressionable male minds. School districts from Cape Cod, Mass., to Kenosha, Wis., to Alameda, Calif., have considered banning the form-fitting pants in hopes of keeping male students focused on matters of the intellect. Of all the world’s hopeless causes, however, this may be the most quixotic.
I say this as a former teenage boy myself.
The mortifying mom from Notre Dame makes one giant mistake in her logic. She reasons from the assumption that guys of high school and college age are occasionally “distracted” by thoughts of sex. The opposite is closer to reality. While the claim that young men think about sex every seven seconds has been debunked, better science finds that the subject crosses their minds an average of about 19 times per day. Occasionally, these thoughts are stirred by the sight of an attractive woman, but often the topic arrives without cause or context, in the middle of history class, or while walking across a parking lot, or taking pizza boxes to the trash.
Sex predates Lululemon, and commands the persistent interest of young men regardless of the whims of fashion. In some cultures, women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe, but there, too, men think of sex. (I daresay the women do also, along with the birds, the bees, even the educated fleas. Thank you, Cole Porter.)
Nature has its imperatives; it works just as powerfully through subtle means as through more forthright and confident displays. “Was it her smile?” a character once asked on the philosophically rich television series “Northern Exposure.” “Was it the way she crossed her legs, the turn of her ankle, the poignant vulnerability of her slender wrists? What are these elusive and ephemeral things that ignite passion in the human heart?”
Or, as the poet T.S. Eliot put it: “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?”
Being a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I found one moment in the printed plea for more plentiful pants to be particularly naive — in a charming way. Mom proposed more modest attire, as moms have done since the world began. “Leggings are so naked, so form fitting, so exposing,” she wrote. “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?”
Jeans! I remember when jeans were themselves the scandalous choice, denim the Devil’s own fabric of desire. Nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins, we were reminded each time we opened a magazine. One of my sisters led a protest when her school tried in vain to enforce a dress code that required girls to wear modest skirts instead of jeans.
Her kindred spirits today are the hundreds of Notre Dame women who cheerfully protested the mom’s letter by posting photos of themselves in their comfy leggings on social media. They rightly recognize that responsibility for male sexual behavior belongs with men. They rightly reject the idea that boys can’t be expected to control themselves in the vicinity of visible girls or that the female body must be cloaked as though it’s a source of shame, or a nuclear secret.
Today’s sleek young women are part of a righteous tradition that goes back to the suffragists more than a century ago. They traded their corsets for cotton blouses and their hoops for unstructured skirts. The right to vote and the right to move freely were of a piece. From that day to this, everyday fashion has trended away from imprisoning and concealing women toward liberating and acknowledging them.
“If some boy can’t handle my clothing choices, that’s his problem,” my daughter summarized. I’d say she’s exactly right.
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