United Airlines’ recent leggings ban has done much more than anger the online world — it’s sparked an important discussion about the ongoing struggle women face dress in regards to unfair dress codes.
Though the great “should leggings be considered pants?” debate has been around for years, the controversy surrounding women’s dress codes was furiously reignited after Shannon Watts tweeted about two girls being banned from boarding a flight until they changed out of the leggings.
Following the severe backlash, Jonathan Guerin, a spokesperson at United Airlines, assuredMashable that the leggings restriction solely applies to a select group of people: employees and their “pass riders,” friends or relatives of United employees who receive free or heavily discounted travel. All other passengers are invited to wear their leggings onboard United flights.
Why your worries are completely justified
Still, if you’re a woman and you’re flying as a pass rider, you are held to a much higher dress standard than others on your flight — including being expected to leave your comfy, form-fitting leggings at home.
“Women are always damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” Dana Suchow — a writer, stylist, and activist who runs , a body-positive blog focused on women’s empowerment — told Mashable. “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 … It goes from policing how much makeup we wear to how our hair is done or if our nails are a certain color.”
Other women agree. They rallied on Twitter to offer support and reflect on the fashion regulations that have made them feel “embarrassed” or “sexualized” by others.
Though United’s official statement casts its response as simply following a procedure that “most companies” also enforce, on Sunday, Twitter user Dana Schwartz explained why the dress code controversy matters so much.
Schwartz encouraged women to vocalize their own thoughts on the incident by sharing an anecdote about her shorts being too short in fifth grade. She also put the problem into visual terms by sharing a powerful drawing of a girl wearing “acceptable” clothing on one half of her body and “unacceptable” clothing on the other half.
As dozens of women opened up about dress code-related pressures and negative experiences they’ve had in their own lives — in schools, during extracurricular activities and even at their places of employment — the problematic expectations of women’s fashion and bodies became increasingly clear. The stories shared, which included criticism for too much jewelry and cleavage, or not enough length, fabric or footwear, are nothing new and often straddle the line between enforcing “appropriate” fashion and slut-shaming.
“I want those girls to know they’re not alone,” Suchow said. “Even though it feels like the world and schools and plane companies and every place that spends money are against you, there are people who fighting for you and going through the same things. There are people who love you and know your worth more than what you’re wearing or how much makeup you have on.”
As beautifully displayed on an oversized white T-shirt by Isabella Villegas — an 18-year-old girl who recently came to her 13-year-old’s sister’s defense after she was told her off-the-shoulder top was too revealing — aside from being complete BS, dress codes can also promote objectification, sexualization and blaming the wearer for the actions of others. And though males are also given certain dress code guidelines, the strict and limiting regulations often lead to a feeling of shame amongst women.
In a 2015 interview with The Atlantic, Maggie Sunseri, producer of Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code — a short film featuring interviews with high school students about the negative impacts of dress codes — explained, “I’ve never seen a boy called out for his attire even though they also break the rules … The dress code makes girls feel self-conscious, ashamed, and uncomfortable in their own bodies.”
Airline dress code drama is nothing new
Though United’s latest dress code drama is making major headlines, this is not the first time women have been asked to change their physical appearance or to cover up by airlines.
Back in 2012, Southwest Airlines found itself in hot water after reportedly confronting a woman on her flight for showing too much cleavage in her flannel shirt. According to Jezebel, the woman, Avital, was told her cleavage was “inappropriate” and that she wouldn’t be able to fly unless she buttoned up a bit more.
“I didn’t want to let the representative’s Big Feelings about my breasts change the way I intended to board my flight,” she told the publication, “And lo and behold, the plane didn’t fall out of the sky … my cleavage did not interfere with the plane’s ability to function properly.”
And though the airline reportedly offered her an apology and a refund on her flight, “to add insult to injury,” Avital explained, “the guy sitting in front of me on the plane was wearing a shirt with an actual Trojan condom embedded behind a clear plastic applique and had no trouble getting on his flight.”
She concluded: “Slut shaming, pure and simple.”
Last May, JetBlue delayed boarding privileges for a 26-year-old woman traveling from Boston to Seattle because of her clothing. As Salon wrote, the Seattle burlesque performer, Maggie McMuffin, was reportedly told her shorts were too short and a gate agent requested she “cover up in order to get on the flight.”
“I felt angry. I felt disrespected. I felt disappointed in the company,” McMuffin told the publication, while JetBlue spokesperson, Morgan Johnston, explained the decision was made with families in mind.
“The gate and onboard crew discussed the customer’s clothing and determined that the burlesque shorts may offend other families on the flight. While the customer was not denied boarding, the crew members politely asked if she could change,” Johnston told Salon.
After purchasing a new pair of shorts, McMuffin reportedly boarded her flight without further incident. JetBlue reportedly sent her a direct message on Twitter after seeing her frustrated tweets, explaining the request came from the pilot.
“It’s getting frustrating and exhausting,” Suchow said, reflecting on the numerous dress code regulations and appearance-based judgements women are constantly faced with. “I just don’t know what the ideal dress for a woman is. I honestly believe that these fake rules exist and keep women focused on their bodies and their appearance.”
“It keeps them shopping and it keeps them spending money instead of fighting for equal rights, fighting for equal pay, fighting for a seat at the table where they are treated equally because we’re so focused on our appearance … that’s what society has told us is important.”
But hey, don’t worry, if airlines don’t want you to wear shorts that come above your knees or shirts that drop any lower than your collarbone there are plenty of other amazing fashion alternatives for you to choose from. The New Yorker jokingly defines appropriate female flying attire as “refraining from showing cleavage, too much leg, or the outline of a human body,” and suggests women wear “a baggy tuxedo that looks like it belonged to a nineteen-thirties tap dancer, or a full hazmat suit.”
But rest assured, you don’t need to take things THAT far. In the winter it’s easy to bundle up in ultra conservative sweaters topped with puffy ski jackets to ensure even someone with x-ray vision won’t be able to make out any semblance of a female figure, and when the hot summer sun arrives you can strip down to light layers, like a nice mumu and baggy sweats, or full-length overalls paired with a fashionable turtleneck.
Sounds great, right? Just great.