On leggings and leadership

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 08:53 AM

My dad is a Methodist minister, and the summer I turned 12, our bishop moved us from Austin to San Angelo, a town straight out of “Friday Night Lights.”

 I now wax poetic about the stark beauty of West Texas.  Then, it seemed like Mars.   I had to learn to make friends on this new planet, and that involved figuring out the unwritten dress code for adolescent success.  In the preppy era, the basic outfit would be Calvin Klein jeans and an Izod top.  But in 1980 a brand of jeans called “Luv-it” was in vogue.  These came with designs embroidered on the back pocket – rainbows, horses, hearts, lipstick, cookies and words like “foxy.”  My own favorite featured a yellow rose.  Optimally, you owned five pair, a different design each day of the week.  This was an expensive fad, and I booked every babysitting job I could get.  But I relished every purchase.  With differently embellished pockets on my backside, I forged my identity and figured out ways to fit in. 

When picking up my oldest from high school in Durham, I have marveled at the carnival of fashion.  There is no “Preppy Handbook” ruling over this generation.  There are mohawk haircuts in different colors, braids with shell beads, a 12-gored jean skirt with carefully frayed edges alongside a plaid a-line skirt from Talbots.  I am sure there are subtleties of snobbery going on, but what I notice from this distance is how imaginative my daughter’s friends are.  

Her sister is now in sixth grade, seeking a signature style.  The three of us had a confusing conversation recently about the DPS handbook rules on clothing.  “No yoga pants,” she insisted.  “What’s wrong with yoga?” I asked.  (I merely endure yoga, but I was pretty sure no one had outlawed it yet.) My older daughter explained that the rule against leggings has been extended to yoga pants.  “It’s about booties, mom.”  Turns out, the rule is about obscuring the particular contours of a girl’s backside.  “But haven’t you worn yoga pants to school?” I asked my eldest.  “Has anyone tried to send you home?”  “Mom,” she rolled her eyes at my color-blind cluelessness, “I won’t get sent home; I’m not black.”  Wow.  Yoga pants, like leggings, have ample leg coverage, usually from waist to ankle, and, unlike blue jeans, they allow a nice freedom of movement.  They are comfy.  I have worn my favorite pair to Sunday worship at Trinity UMC, so I can slip out afterward to yoga class.  But they don’t “leave much to the imagination,” as my father would say.  Apparently some adults are afraid the sight will distract during Algebra.   

I mentioned this rule to my graduate students, and one sent me an article on what appears to be a national trend for public school reform in “ethnically and economically diverse” school districts.  Nancy L. Cohen lives in Los Angeles, and the title of her piece for the Guardian website reads: “Welcome back to school, girls.  And mind those breasts!”  She laments: “My daughters’ school has a new dress code:  No bellies. No buns. No breasts.”  One of my Duke classes had a frank conversation about how far administrators should go in their quest for uniformity and focus.  A woman in the class who grew up near the equator noted that everyone in her school wore as little as possible due to the heat.  “Somehow, funny enough, we learned plenty, even with lots of skin showing.” 

What about hair?  Growing up in Texas, there wasn’t only the difficulty of fickle hair trends.  There were also rules about boys and hair length, and ear piercings.  One friend tried styling himself like the androgynous MTV star Adam Ant.  He not only got the snot beaten out of him by some other boys, but he was called into the principal’s office and scolded.  Today, I am grateful my daughters have friends who adopt and adapt different styles of self-expression and claim their individuality, whether that means combing the sales racks at Nordstrom’s, spending their few work-free hours picking through thrift shops or making screen-printed t-shirts.  And I hope for both the girls and boys a sense that their bodies are not treacherous distractions but beautiful gifts from a good creator.

I think there are lots of ways in this world to be distracted from proper focus.  Underfunded and overworked public school administrators in cities like Durham are being pushed and pulled in various directions by educational snake-oil salesmen intent to sell cheap and/or trendy solutions to real problems facing kids and their families during this grisly recession.  I don’t think blurring my daughter’s backside or regulating your son’s hair is the solution.  We are capable of more creative leadership than that.

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.