Yoga pants aren’t bad for women, but criticising our fashion choices is bad for us

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You might have spotted that the New York Times has waged war on women’s workout gear. Yoga pants, to be precise. An op-ed published on the NYT Opinion page on Sunday added yoga pants to the ever-burgeoning catalogue of Things That Are Bad For Women™. 

Its author, Honor Jones—a woman—claimed that women only wear this previously uncontroversial garment because “they’re sexy,” and proffered sweatpants as an unobtrusive alternative deserving of a revival. Sexiness isn’t the only problem with yoga pants, by Jones’s estimation. They also, happen to “show every dimple and roll in every woman over 30″—which seemingly makes it harder to “conquer the world” in Jones’ vision of gender politics. 

But, here’s the thing: yoga pants aren’t really what’s bad for women. It’s women criticising other women’s sartorial choices that’s actually bad for women. And, sadly, we’ve been doing it for centuries. 

Jones makes an overly simplistic value judgement about yoga pants, stating categorically that women only ever wear them because they want to “look hot.” Never mind the fact that yoga pants are comfortable, breathable, and practical. What’s more: Jones’ appears to take issue with the idea of women wanting to look good unless they’re on a date. Looking good at work is “problematic,” so too is wearing sexy clothes to the gym. 

We aren’t wearing these workout clothes because they’re cooler or more comfortable. (You think the selling point of Lululemon’s Reveal Tight Precision pants is really the way their moth-eaten design provides a “much-needed dose of airflow”?) We’re wearing them because they’re sexy.

We felt we had to look hot on dates — a given. We felt we had to look hot at the office — problematic. But now we’ve internalized the idea that we have to look hot at the gym? Give me a break. The gym is one of the few places where we’re supposed to be able to focus on how our bodies feel, not just on how they look. We need to remember that. Sweatpants can help.

This criticism smacks heavily of slut shaming. But, the assertion that the only acceptable setting for dressing “hot” is a date is deeply problematic. Women don’t just wear “sexy” clothes to attract attention from prospective suitors. There’s more than one reason for dressing hot, and more often than not, it has nothing to do with attracting a mate. 

It’s not good manners for women to tell other women how to dress; that’s the job of male fashion photographers. Women who criticize other women for dressing hot are seen as criticizing women themselves — a sad conflation if you think about it, rooted in the idea that who we are is how we look. It’s impossible to have once been a teenage girl and not, at some very deep level, feel that.

This op-ed isn’t breaking any new ground in its criticism of “skin-tight” garments. It’s been just under a year since United Airlines’ short-lived leggings ban shone a spotlight on the infuriating issue of unfair dress codes which are routinely imposed on women. In March 2017, two women attempting to board a United flight were scrutinised for their sartorial choices, and were deemed “not in compliance” with the airline’s dress code. This dress code prohibits passengers found to be “barefoot or not properly clothed.” 

“It seems like women exist solely to be judged by others and that there’s no space in which women are safe in to exist in the way that we want to exist,” body positive blogger Dana Suchow told Mashable last year. “It goes from policing how much makeup we wear to how our hair is done or if our nails are a certain colour.”

Women wearing spandex, by United Airlines’ estimate, are not “properly clothed.” And, one year on,  nothing’s really changed. 

Plus size blogger Fat Heffalump has written about the body-shaming discourse surrounding leggings. “Leggings are often seen as ‘tarty’ or ‘cheap.’ This is about slut shaming, policing women’s sexuality and how they clothe their own bodies,” she writes. 

Lululemon yoga pants might be a little bit pricier than leggings, but Jones’ objection to spandex seems rooted in these age-old charges brought against skin-tight spandex clothing. 

In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay urged women not to “tear other women down.”

“Because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important,” she wrote. “This is not to say you cannot criticise other women, but understand the difference between criticising constructively and tearing down cruelly.”

Criticising a woman’s clothing choices certainly does not fall into the category of constructive criticism. 

For millennia, women and girls have been instructed what they should and should not wear. And, to this day, we are still being told our clothes are too sexy, too figure-hugging, too unflattering, too modest, too unsuitable. Women’s clothing choices are often blamed as the cause of sexual assault. And, schoolgirls are continuously shamed, sent home, and forced to miss a day of school when their clothing is deemed unsuitable. 

Right now, women are living through a historic turning point, where time is finally being called on harassment, abuse, and sexual violence. Women should be encouraged to uplift other women, not tear one another down. 

This catty sport of criticising clothing—by men or women—might seem innocuous, or even entertaining. But, in reality, it harks back to a former regime, where the policing of women and girls’ bodies was considered acceptable. We are no longer living in that era. 

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