She had thought about writing the letter for “a long time.” She waited, holding out hope that “fashions would change” and preclude the need.
But disappointment met her at every turn.
And so, on Monday, a writer identified as Maryann White unleashed 600 words on the “problem” of leggings ― specifically how they’re worn by young women all over the country as part of casual daytime outfits ― in a letter to the editor of The Observer, Notre Dame’s student-run newspaper.
“I’m not trying to insult anyone or infringe upon anyone’s rights,” White wrote. “I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings.”
Students at Notre Dame were less than impressed with White’s argument, which centred on the tired idea that women are responsible for the way men react to how they are dressed.
In the comments section, sparks flew. Quickly was a protest born.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, students of all genders attending the private Catholic university encouraged one another to wear leggings in a demonstration of how strongly they disagreed with the letter.
“You couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends,” White wrote about one particularly offensive mass during which her family was behind a group of young women in leggings and “short-waisted tops.” “I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.”
In conclusion, White asked the young women of northern Indiana, in the US: “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?”
Student activists with Irish 4 Reproductive Health, a campus reproductive rights group, called the letter “well-intentioned” on a Facebook page for a newly created event, Leggings Pride Day. But it also pushed “age-old sexist tropes that characterise women as unchaste temptresses,” they said.
The debate over leggings-as-pants is not new. Some K-12 schools have banned them on the basis that they are “distracting” to boys ― up there with spaghetti straps and short shorts. There has been a growing movement to reconsider how girls are held accountable for others’ actions in ways their male classmates are not.
Anne Jarrett, a junior, told the “Today” show’s style section she helped organise one of the protests because she wanted to “reframe the conversation.”
Jarret wanted to “make sure that not only is this not about women taking responsibility [for] making men not sin, but also making sure that this doesn’t fall into the rhetoric of survivors who are ‘asking for it’ because of what they are wearing.”
Some students showed their solidarity by post pictures of themselves in leggings on social media.
“I wear leggings because what I wear is not an invitation to sexualise my body, and I like to work out in them,” senior Nicole Waddick said matter-of-factly in a video posted to The Observer’s Twitter page.
Another Facebook event, titled “The Leggings Protest,” mocked White with a line-by-line spoof of her letter, “The Leggings Problem.”
“I’m not trying to infringe upon her right to free speech,” senior Kaitlyn Wong wrote. “I’m just a Catholic woman who feels the need for one specific type of pant that provides utmost comfort: leggings.”
More than 2,000 people marked “attending” between the two events.
The Observer also published several responses to White’s letter this week. One, written by the mother of a female Notre Dame student, said that White was “raising the wrong mindset.”
“My daughter is not responsible for this woman’s sons’ thoughts or behaviours,” wrote Heather Piccone.
In another letter, a male undergraduate student described his own indignation at the idea that men like himself “can’t control themselves.”
“This is the same justification that is used in sexual assault cases — ‘if only’ the wearer wore different and less-revealing clothes, the assault would not have happened,” wrote sophomore Conrad Palor. “It is this shifting of blame to the wearer that only furthers rape culture and continues the objectification and sexualization of young bodies.”
The kids are alright.