Instead of Banning Yoga Pants, Schools Should Crack Down on Harassment

a woman doing yoga in the middle of the street

Yoga pants and leggings are increasingly being banned by school dress codes. Photo by Matt Madd

I was driving by one of the high schools here in Portland the other day and the football team was headed out in their practice gear: dozens of 16-18 year old guys, swaggering along in shoulder pads and tight white pants. Some of them had their shirts off and one of them in particular had a midriff jersey that ended around his rib cage, so as he walked along the sidewalk a couple feet from my passenger door, I could see the trail of dark hair disappearing into his pants. 

The scene made me think about a poignant letter from Ashley Crtalic published in the Billings Gazette just a week before, pointing out the hypocrisy behind the dress code at Billings Skyview High School. The school banned leggings, yoga pants, and other fitted pants normally worn by young women because they allegedly distract male students. Crtalic recounts how when she was a student there, she was shamed and punished for dress code violations. However, she was also sexually harassed by her peers. When male students shouted abusive, explicit catcalls, school officials did nothing. So while the school would protect the boys from “distraction”, they wouldn’t protect her from abuse. Crtalic’s letter and a number of other incidents around the country where girls are subject to humiliating dress code policing have put school dress codes in the public eye recently

a sign spoofing a school dress code

A 14-year-old student put up these posters over signs announcing their school’s dress code.  

The “distraction” theory behind public school dress codes is flawed on a number of levels. It interferes  with girls’ educational time and causes embarrassment. It also puts the burden of boys’ self-control on girls. But schools and teachers who are trying to protect boys from being allegedly “distracted” are making also erroneous assumptions about the effects of girls dress. If girls’ outfits do cause a reaction in boys, schools aren’t just getting their priorities wrong, they’re ignoring aggression, which is a different and more serious problem. Schools are putting resources and authority behind shaming girls instead of taking the opportunity to educate teenagers about consent and gendered intimidation.  

What exactly are adults assuming about “distraction”? Are they talking about boys being sexually aroused? Boys having romantic feelings? Looking at girls? Boys aren’t just passive sacks of hormones, magnetically thrown off course by female parts or pheromones. Young men and boys are responsible for their own arousal, attraction and attention span. Controlling girls’ dress assumes that boys are more frequently or severely distracted just by being around girls than any other source of distraction and that the only way to fix it is to control the girls.

How do you tell if a boy is “distracted by” a girls attire? Is it because he’s catcalling her?  Talking about her? Here is where it gets tricky, because schools have a general mission and right to maintain discipline and control student attire to the extent it disrupts the educational environment. But no coverage of this issue I’ve read has discussed how the boys’ distraction actually manifests, and how disruptive it is. But in her letter to the Billings Gazette, Ashley Crtalic makes the connection to sexual harassment, which is certainly a tangible disruption. Crtalic points out that when she was harassed, she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not the outfits that got her punished for dress code violations.

I too was sexually harassed when I was a student in a public high school. A group of boys followed me around the halls, asking if I wanted to fuck and shouting other abuse, particularly if I tried to ignore them. The one time I tried to physically fend one of them off when he got too close, he hit back at me. The vice principal said “that’s just what boys do.” At thirteen, I was confused about what it meant. Did it mean boys liked me? I wanted to be liked, but it made me feel like hell. What about the boy on the bus who ran his finger up my leg when I wore shorts saying “niiice”? I decided the best approach was not to wear shorts in public again for about the next seven years. But here’s the thing, when I was verbally abused and stalked in the halls, I was wearing jeans, an oxford button-down and a sweater vest (it was the 80s).  There isn’t a cause and effect relationship between sexual harassment and dress. So what is happening with these dress codes?

Another student’s point about a misguided dress code at her school is loud and clear.

As a society we have no problem telling young men (and women) to develop and exercise self-control when it comes to driving, fighting, junk food and certainly alcohol or drugs. When they fail to self-regulate, they get consequences. So what is it about girls’ bare shoulders or legs or yoga pant-clad bottoms that is so powerful? The answer may be “nothing.” Because the point of harassment isn’t girls’ bodies, it’s their personhood. Catcalling or street harassment aren’t “compliments,” they are expressions of  aggression and dominance. It’s a way to control women’s presentation in public places. Prevention and education about street harassment make the connection to rape culture clear.

In the case of dress codes, schools are simply assuming that boys can’t pay attention in school because of girls’ dress. But they appear not to be measuring boys’ reactions, instead they are measuring girls’ shorts. Where boys are engaging in some conduct that is conceivably a reaction to girls physical presentation, that conduct is damaging and offensive and should be dealt with directly. No dress or behavior on the part of girls makes sexual intimidation acceptable, even if they were causally related, which they aren’t.

Schools privilege boys’ perceived “distraction” above girls’ distraction and the disruption to their education from harassment. Dress codes are less about “distraction” and more about policing young women’s sexuality. If simple “distraction” was a problem, young men walking around in their football uniforms showing their abs would be policed just as aggressively as young women in yoga pants.

What would schools be like if, instead of adults asking girls to bend over to look at how short their skirts are, they put up posters with a respect message like those on public transportation in some parts of the country? Or instead of taking time for a school assembly to show clips from Pretty Woman, they had an assembly about sexualized bullying and how to stop and prevent it. Whether or not young women “look like prostitutes” is a non-problem. Young women being aggressively humiliated is an actual problem. Schools need to fundamentally alter their attitude toward young women and men’s emerging sexuality to effect real, healthy change but it would result in a lot less “distraction” for everyone.

Related Reading: Seven Stories of Ways to Stop Street Harassment.

by Elleanor Chin
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20 Comments Have Been Posted

distracting yoga pants

Amen amen!! If it were about what she was wearing, no woman would step into a coed pool. Or classroom. Or workspace. Or anywhere. Rape is absolutely a crime of OPPORTUNITY. Period. If you set up an experiment with twenty male rapists in a room with a naked woman protected by an Uzi (either her own or a bodyguard's ) no male on female rape would occur, despite howor if she was dressed or not. Remove the Uzi and put her in riot gear covered by a burkha-- rape will ensue. -

Your Perversion = Not My Problem

I get the sinking feeling that these oppressive dress codes serve the dual purpose of preventing pervy male teachers and faculty from being "distracted" by underage girls. News flash: It's not my responsibility to curtail your perversion and lust (as if I have that power anyway).

Claiming that teen boys can't control their behavior is also insulting to teen boys. Male AND female teens have raging hormones, but they also have brains and should be taught to use them. What better place to teach that lesson than in school?

Although you do bring up a

Although you do bring up a good point about teenagers being taught to use their brains, I believe that the issue is not to prevent certain teachers from getting "distracted" during class, but rather to instill a sense of professionalism in teenagers. If you wouldn't go to work wearing yoga pants than you should not be going to school wearing them, as they are inappropriate for a work place environment. This movement of schools having stricter dress codes may actually be better for our future generations, so they know how to conduct themselves properly when they enter the real world. It just happens to be that females are the ones who wear more provocative clothing at school and therefore they are the primary target for this.

To say this only talks about

To say this only talks about one specific type of workplace though. In fact, most of my friends and co-workers wear leggings, yoga pants and other comfortable clothes. One of these friends even works for the ministry of natural resources and because of the idea that it's ridiculous to make a worker change their clothes between field work and office work every day, things like yoga pants and leggings are allowed in these work environments. As a waitress in college even, my uniform was yoga pants and a white blouse. I was actually told at the employment office aty university that it's better to dress up a pair of leggings with nice boots, a top and a blazer these days, because it shows you dress for your age. And I did get a job wearing leggings, knee high boots and a blazer. Because at 22, if I wear clothing that people from older generations consider professional I look like a child dressing up in my mommas clothing.

Your comment is null when

Your comment is null when considering the fact that sweatpants and most athletic wear is okay to wear at school. As are ripped and torn clothes, ultra short cheerleading uniforms, and basic casual wear. This banning of certain articles of women's clothing has nothing to do with professionalism.

Enforcing dress codes is a

Enforcing dress codes is a form of harassment in and of itself. It takes the focus off of academics, where it should be, and focuses on what the girl is wearing. This is completely belittling to the intellectual aspirations of girls and women. Add to this that the girls who are more often targeted for enforcement are typically more endowed. So the bra strap of the girl who needs the bra is an affront to the propriety of the school, yet a spaghetti strap on a girl who doesn't need bra support is just fine. Or the super skinny girl wearing the leggings goes unnoticed, but not the overweight girl in shorts. Being targeted by a school official for dress code violations is extremely humiliating, especially for the younger teens. Worse still, that school officials would put clothing violations before academics and force a student to miss classes over a bra strap! Or force a student to wear an oversized sweatshirt to cover up, in a sort of contemporary Scarlett letter. It's an institutionalized form of slut shaming, and sometimes fat shaming, or boob shaming. Sadly the vast majority of people making and enforcing these rules are women. The unspoken truth is that women are very effective at maintaining gender inequality. But they tried to institute a dress code at my daughters school, and the teachers refused to enforce it. This was much to the relief of my daughter who had terrible memories of being continually singled out for dress code violations in middle school. She was dressed entirely like her peers, but with thicker bra straps. And the only harassment she has ever received about her body hasn't come from boys, but from school officials.

2 Separate Issues

As a male who has never and would never condone catcalling or sexual harassment I have a difficult time merging the 2 issues of self control of boys and appropriate dress for school. No doubt young men have to learn to respect others and control themselves. Does that change how revealing yoga pants/leggings are? If girls started showing up for school in bikinis, would that also be met with "dirty minded boys" and "pervy" male teachers just need to control themselves? Thongs? Is nothing inappropriate for school anymore?

The boys described at football practice don't show up for school dressed in their uniforms. They shouldn't and wouldn't be allowed to. It's not appropriate attire for the classroom. Boys shouldn't be taking off their shirts in school hallways, classrooms or gym class. Or walking around in revealing yoga pants.

Revealing or "provocative" dress isn't just a distraction for dirty minded boys. It's a distraction for students of both genders who may feel self conscious about their physiques... pudgy, under developed, fully developed, too hairy, not enough hair.. etc. Sure, it would be great to say insecure boys and girls should be responsible for getting their acts together just as dirty minded boys and pervy teachers should. But the reality is there's enough pressure on kids in school as it is. I dont see a problem with trying to limit anything that can cause angst or distraction within those halls. Football uniforms included.

I understand it's important to properly communicate the wearing of tight pants doesn't justify lewd comments or actions... but that doesn't mean tight pants are appropriate attire for school.

are you seriously comparing a

are you seriously comparing a girl showing up to school in nothing but a thong to a girl wearing yoga pants to school. yoga pants are comfortable for girls. they're full length, opaque pants that cover everything that should be covered. essentially what you're saying is that having an ass is inappropriate for school.

as someone who i assume has never been a teenage girl, it's impossible for you to fully understand how it feels when you're called to the office by authority figures and forced to change because the comfortable, normal clothes you chose to wear are too revealing. it makes young impressionable girls feel embarrassed and ashamed about their own bodies. and please understand that most of the time, these reprimands for dress code violations aren't for crazy outfits that look like they're from a britney spears video but average outfits like a t-shirt and yoga pants or a sleeveless blouse and jeans.

i understand the point you're trying to make here, but i think you're misinterpreting the situation a little. if you saw some of the outfits that girls were being prohibited from wearing, i think you'd see that more often than not, the problem isn't the clothing but the overly strict dress code rules.

No Liza, I wasn't comparing

No Liza, I wasn't comparing yoga pants to a thong. I was wondering where "the line" was for appropriate vs inappropriate school attire. You say yoga pants are fine but scoff at the notion of a girl showing up for school in a thong. Why not a thong? Why are yoga pants ok but not a thong? Since the reaction to the attire is the problem of boys who lack self control and rape culture, then how could we stop girls from wearing thongs?

There's a lot of discussion about the need to teach boys how to behave responsibility. We should do that. But what about teaching these young girls some responsibility about dressing appropriately? Yoga pants shouldn't be worn to school any more than pajamas or any other disrespectful/inappropriate attire.

Yoga pants and leggings are

Yoga pants and leggings are considered appropriate street clothes in our society today. Thongs are not. Women wear dressed up leggings in the office, no one wears just a thong. You're implying that leggings and yoga pants are a slippery slope to girls wearing only thongs to school. That's hyperbolic and we can reasonably expect that thongs as school pants will not happen.

I know this is old, but, yoga

I know this is old, but, yoga pants aren't exactly considered appropriate street clothes -- there is still some controversy surrounding them -- and you'll be hard pressed to find an office that would allow an employee to wear only leggings or yoga pants and a top that hits at the waist. I love leggings and yoga pants -- they're very comfortable -- which is why I wear them at muay thai or the gym. If I wear them on the street, I wear them under a tunic or skirt so my back AND front are covered. It IS inappropriate for every curvature of the anatomy to be put out on display...and I'm not talking about the butt. I'm willing to bet the controversy of girls wearing leggings at school isn't due to them wearing them under a long tunic or skirt, but instead wearing them just as pants with a regular top.

You said this as about as

You said this as about as professional and thoughtful as anyone can, but I'm not going to:

Boo-hoo you can't wear leggings and/or provocative clothing to school. It shouldn't even matter, because you are there to LEARN! These type of clothes are rarely worn simply for comfort. Most girls wear leggings to be provocative, to attract attention. Don't sit here and pretend like leggings are for some intellectual gain. None of this has anything to do with catcalling, or distracting boys. It is simply not appropriate for schools. Young men can not wear Under Armour tops, nor sagging pants because they are to revealing and inappropriate as well. I'm pretty sure they aren't allowed to wear leggings as well. And teachers regardless of gender and/or whether they can't control they're arousal shouldn't have to witness students wearing mini skirts that show their thong, shirts that show a lot of cleavage, sagging pants, compression shirts with nipples poking out, or tight leggings that expose genital areas.

Just because the school relayed a bad message of not "distracting boys", doesn't mean it would be appropriate otherwise. Stop blaming dress codes and society for "rape culture". Rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault are due to individuals who lack respect for other human beings and see them as objects. They simply refuse to comply with what society has deemed tolerable. No one is to blame but the individuals.

Rodrell, I want you to say

Rodrell, I want you to say the sentence "girls rarely wear leggings for comfort, most girls wear them to be provocative!" to a girl or woman in your life and see how quickly she laughs you out of the room

Rodrell, how fitting that you

Rodrell, how fitting that you trot out the tired patriarchal construct that women chose their clothing for the male gaze. What a privileged (or deluded) position you enjoy that you can assume that women wear certain types of clothing to be sexual for men! But here's the reality: women wear clothing to protect themselves from the elements, to be comfortable, and to be sexual usually for themselves, but sometimes for a particular person or group of people that she wants to be sexual for. Those are all her decisions and they are all ok and not harmful.
Here's the link to rape culture since you appear to have missed it. Rape culture objectifies women, robbing them of their personhood (humanity, whatever you want to call it) and their bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy simultaneously encompasses respecting a person's decision to do as he or she pleases with his or her body (i.e have sex with who he/she wants when he/she wants as long as the other party is also consenting and dressing however he/she wants) and respecting what a person doesn't want to do with their body. By placing the responsibility of distracting men on women through dress codes, we take away their bodily autonomy since we latently express to women that they must control what they are wearing and how and when they are sexual with people. On the other hand, women's autonomy is not being protecting against harrassment about their bodies or clothing.
Honestly, I don't care what a person is wearing I know when and how to approach a person in a respectful manner and at an appropriate time to express my sexual interest. It's problematic that we're not teaching men that. That instead we teach them that they are entitled to women's bodies and especially if women are wearing certain types of clothing. So, there's your link between dress codes and rape culture.

Also, Rodrell's comment makes

Also, Rodrell's comment makes assumptions that only girls who are physically attractive in high school wear leggings. What about people of all shapes and sizes that wear leggings? People wear them for comfort, not for attention.


"These type of clothes are rarely worn simply for comfort. Most girls wear leggings to be provocative, to attract attention. "

Lol. I am sorry, any real content in your message was totally and wholly lost by this.

Yoga pants are almost always worn for comfort. They feel like pajama pants but look like regular pants. There's a reason lots of women wear them after giving birth, and it isn't because we're keen to get male attention at that point.

I agree 100% that these rules

I agree 100% that these rules are sexist, and put the onus of sexual harassment on the victims. I just want to share this story because it always made me laugh. I am not arguing 'this happens to men too' or anything like that. this was just one school.

but when I was in HS, (class of 95), we had a dress code that I totally don't remember at all. except that we weren't allowed to wear sweatpants. and that was a source of a lot of joking, because that just seemed bizarre to us. for one thing, pretty much no one wore sweatpants to school. but we just couldn't figure out why that would be a problem. It's not like we couldn't wear sweatshirts or shorts or those noisy "track pants".

but my mom told me later in my life, that when my brother was in HS (class of 88), that was when they made the no sweatpants rule. and it was because the boys were wearing sweatpants so tight you could see the outline of their junk! and I just thought this was so crazy, because obviously I was the way big clothing generation and sweatpants had always seemed like the ultimate in not revealing any of your body.

so yeah, that's not relevant, I just thought the kind of time relativism is interesting.

why can't we get it right

School, especially at the high school level, isn't for you to prove you can dress like the most recent A&F catalogue. It is supposed to be, by that age, cultivating a sense of professionalism for the real work environment that is so close.

So no. Yoga pants, leggings, halter tops, etc, etc, are not appropriate. Neither are pants hanging around your knees, gang symbols, etc appropriate. There is a reason many countries enforce uniforms at that age.

But neither is sexual harassment appropriate, and schools need to enforce that as well. The answer isn't no standards for anything, it is high standards for everything g.

Kind of an empty article...

It took me a couple of readings of this to figure out how to respond because the author has done an excellent job of hiding the fact that she has very little to say. The entire article could simply have been boiled down to "Dress codes are bad because high school girls don't like them and because I should be able to wear whatever I want." For what it's worth, as a nudist I agree with her on the last point. Still, she didn't make any attempt to back up her positions with any reasons; the whole article just felt like a convenient excuse to toss out words like "patriarchy" and "rape culture."

The simple fact of the matter is that as a society we have decided that under certain circumstances appropriate dress standards - beyond mere safety standards - may be set. School is one situation where such standards may be set. If those standards are not being uniformly applied, or are not being evenly enforced then there is something to discuss, otherwise, unless you're willing to eliminate dress codes entirely - for everyone - this really is a very silly non-issue.

I remember two occasions in

I remember two occasions in high school where I was confronted about our dress code. The first time I was talking to my friend, picked up my books which got caught on my top and my belly was briefly and barely exposed. At this exact moment a supervision officer was driving by in his golf cart and told me I needed to come with him to the office because I had violated dress code. I refused to go with him because this was completely absurd and I walked away. He proceeded to chase me through the school in his golf cart - I didnt even know I could run that fast!- until I was off campus. School was already over for the day.
The second time the school police officer was staring at my chest and told me I needed to button up my blouse, change my shirt, or be written up.

The problem here is not just with the students - but with the pervs who actually work in the administration!

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