My sixth-grade wardrobe consisted primarily of leggings and my stepfather’s oversize T-shirts. The T-shirts were a way of hiding my body; the leggings were a way of ignoring it. No buttons that I would have to strain closed, no waistband that would dig into my belly when I forgot to suck it in — which I was already doing, regularly, at the age of 11. Why even try to be fashionable? A big ugly T-shirt and soft, stretchy leggings and I was done.
When I read this weekend’s screed against yoga pants in the New York Times, I didn’t feel sad for that chubby, woefully attired pre-teen. I felt defensive for adult me. Because today, I still love leggings. Instead of helping me hide, they help me live in my body as it is.
What Honor Jones should’ve written is a love letter to sweatpants. As her op-ed opens, Jones is wearing sweatpants to the gym, reminiscing fondly about their heyday. But she is surrounded by women in yoga pants, and she does not believe that they’re wearing them for comfort or temperature control. If their butts and legs are showcased, that must be the point.
Jones thinks that we wear yoga pants to look sexy, and she’s sad that we feel pressure to be sexy when we exercise. (There’s a difference between looking sexy and feeling sexy, though, and hasn’t feeling sexy ever helped you run another minute or lift one more heavy rep?) She laments that stretchy pants have snuck out of the gym and onto the street, too: “When yoga pants are the first thing grown women put on every morning, we can’t help absorbing the message that staying fit is our No. 1 purpose in life.”
Of course, no one makes these kinds of arguments about men wearing basketball sneakers off the court. Yoga pants, like leggings, are just pants — stretchy and soft and skintight. They’ve been derided for being too clingy, too casual, too trashy, for not hiding nearly enough — Jones writes that they threaten to reveal “every dimple and roll.” Heaven forbid anyone should see my fat legs. But that’s part of what I love about leggings — they let my legs be whatever shape they are.
Because in my mind, leggings-as-streetwear aren’t a substitute for sweatpants, but for jeans. And the main reason I love leggings is that they don’t hurt to wear. Every pair of jeans I’ve ever owned has left red marks on my body, painful reminders that they were designed for a shape that’s different from mine.
Loose pants, flowing skirts and dresses — they’re comfortable, too. But sometimes I don’t want to hide my form. That desire, as it is for many women, was hard-won.
The first pair of jeans I bought in seventh grade tapered at the ankle. A few months later, a kind eighth-grader told me I should buy boot-cut jeans because the wider leg would balance out my hips and thighs. And so I was inducted into a lifetime of trying to corral my body into a more acceptable shape, whether cinched by stiff fabric or trompe l’oeiled away.
But yoga pants and leggings mean I don’t have to fight my body, or be ashamed of it, either, when it doesn’t fit mass-produced sizes. They let you be whatever shape you are, and they let you be comfortable — physically, at least. Emotional and social comfort are harder to achieve, but leggings can lead you there, too. They are skintight, after all. They come in so many sizes, with generous stretch in between. So much of women’s fashion is about pain, physical and spiritual. But yoga pants don’t give a fuck about your body, and that’s contagious.
I remember a leggings-based outfit from my mid-20s, with a denim mini-skirt and boots. (You’ll say that they could just as well have been tights, but I promise you, the skirt was very short.) I’m sorry, Honor Jones, but I wore this outfit to feel sexy, and, amazingly, it worked.
I wished I could send a message to my 15-year-old self, to let her know that this was possible. I was no thinner than she was. My body had hardly changed from adolescence. But I was wearing skintight leggings under barely any skirt, and I felt good about it. It was like the whole world was new.