In Christian Circles, the Debate Over Leggings and Female Butts Has Been Raging With Special Urgency

A woman wearing leggings on campus
The only thing people like more than wearing leggings is getting mad about leggings. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash and Lindrik/ iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Among some fashion observers, leggings have been regarded for a while now as the “new jeans.” For years, American consumers have been buying less and less denim in favor of stretchy, sleek “athleisure.” In 2017, imports of stretchy knit pants exceeded blue jeans for the first time. Accommodating and comfy, the stretchy pants created for exercise are now the downtime uniform for the modern woman. Leggings won.

So why haven’t we stopped fighting about them? This week, a new skirmish in the leggings war erupted in South Bend, Indiana, where a churchgoer named Maryann White wrote a letter to the editor of the Notre Dame student newspaper after sitting behind a group of young women wearing “very snug-fitting leggings” at a Catholic Mass. White, the mother of four sons, was moved to contemplate the impact of this “unforgiving garment” on the moral development of her sons. “I’ve heard women say that they like leggings because they’re ‘comfortable,’ ” she wrote. “So are pajamas. So is nakedness.”

White acknowledged that women have a right to wear anything they want, and she ended on a note of self-aware good cheer. “Thanks for listening to the lecture,” she concluded. “Catholic moms are good at those!” It wasn’t enough. The paper published a series of indignant responses (“My daughter is not responsible for this woman’s sons’ thoughts or behaviors”) and within days the kerfuffle had gone national. Various student groups declared Tuesday “Leggings Pride Day” and Wednesday “The Leggings Protest,” with more than 2,000 people vowing to dress comfortably as a sign of public protest. The demonstrations’ actual impact was hard to ascertain, one group leader told the Washington Post, because it was “a little difficult to tell what was protest and what was everyday legging-wear.”

Here’s a fact about leggings in 2019: The only thing people like more than wearing leggings is getting mad about leggings. In the sphere of public debate, leggings have become the symbol of slipping standards, immodesty, and The Problem With Young People Today. On the other side, they are a symbol of freedom, feminism, and even the future. School districts have tried to ban them; airlines have maintained confusing policies on them. Backlash ensues, over and over. When a random citizen of Rhode Island wrote a letter to the Barrington Times a few years ago suggesting that some women over age 20 shouldn’t wear yoga pants (gross!), women planned a “yoga pant parade” past his house (why?).

It’s fitting that Maryann White’s jeremiad against the troublesome trousers sprang from an encounter in a church. The leggings debate takes on a special urgency in Christian circles, where the stakes are not just which pants are flattering, but which pants are godly. Modesty is a virtue named in the New Testament, and lust is a sin. But the Bible unhelpfully does not include original illustrations. Does modesty require covered shoulders? Long skirts? Or just a spirit of not “trying so very hard to look good in all the ways that are so relatively unimportant,” while also, of course, looking traditionally feminine? Meanwhile, huge swaths of mainstream Christian culture are almost indistinguishable aesthetically with mainstream American culture, and even take pains to imitate it. The result is that many young Christian women feel perfectly comfortable wearing leggings, while others see them as not just unflattering but immoral.

The result is seemingly endless cycles of debates within the Christian community about the communal ethics of spandex, a hothouse version of the broader cultural debate. “Modesty, Yoga Pants and 5 Myths You Need to Know”; “To the Christian Men and Women Debating Yoga Pants”; “Yoga Pants and What the Bible Really Says About Modesty”; “Should Christian Women Wear Leggings?”; “Why I Chose to No Longer Wear Leggings”; and my personal favorite, “Leggings: A Catholic Man’s Perspective.” For what it’s worth, America is doing pretty well right now by traditional measures of Christian morality: Teen abstinence is up; teen pregnancy is down; divorce is down. The visible-butt revolution has not ruined us yet.

Only a few decades ago, of course, traditionalists were huffing about whether women should be allowed to wear any kind of pants in formal spaces. “Nixon Dislikes Gals in Slacks,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1973, after the president “teasingly” told reporter Helen Thomas in the Oval Office that she shouldn’t wear them. A few years later, a syndicated newspaper column for teenagers printed a letter from a young woman annoyed that a deacon at her church had chastised her for wearing jeans to a Sunday service. The columnist agreed with the girl, and was inundated with letters objecting to his laxity. “Teen-agers have too much freedom at not enough responsibility and maturity,” an Ohio correspondent huffed. “Our church bans pants of any kind on females,” came the report from Boston.

Women do wear pants everywhere these days, including to work and to church. The slippery-slopers were right, in a way. Personally, I rarely wear leggings out of the house, and I wear longer shirts and sweaters when I do. The reason is that leggings show your butt. We all know it! We do appear to be on some kind of slippery slope toward increasing butt visibility. But there’s reason to think most of us will grow more comfortable with that over time. Take, for instance, one woman who may have grasped her pearls at the trendy youth pants of the ’70s but now sees them as modest and appropriate. “Leggings are so naked, so form fitting, so exposing,” Maryann White wrote in her letter to the editor. “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?”