This weekend I was reminded of how deeply ingrained sexism is in our culture: People still believe it’s acceptable to police the clothing of girls and women.
It all started at the Denver airport on Sunday as I waited with my husband to board a flight to Mexico. Our gate was next to a flight to Minneapolis. There was a lot of activity — a mom appeared to be running back and forth between her family and the gate agent, whom we overheard saying, “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.”
I asked what was wrong. The mom told me, “United Airlines just kicked two teens off the flight for wearing leggings, and now we may not be able to get on, either.” Her daughter, who looked to be 10 or 11 years old, was wearing a gray pair of cotton leggings — de rigueur for a young, active American girl. When the woman suddenly remembered she had a Hawaiian dress in her carry-on bag, she gave it to her daughter to pull on over her shirt and leggings, and they boarded the plane.
The airline says the dress code it enforced on Sunday applies only to “pass riders” — airline employees and their dependents who are offered free or discounted travel — and leaves it up to gate agents to decide how the policy is applied. In this case, two young women were rejected from the flight, and a girl was allowed to board only after covering her leggings.
United’s policy, as listed by airline employee travel site Fly ZED, states that clothing can’t be “provocative, inappropriately revealing or see-through.” In addition, the code prohibits miniskirts, “form-fitting” pants and dresses and attire that “reveals a midriff.” All these descriptions disproportionately apply to women. In fact, the girl’s father had no issue boarding in shorts.
During #leggingsgate, a United spokesperson tweeted, “Casual attire is allowed as long as it looks neat and is in good taste for the local environment.” But just as was evidenced at the gate, such standards are applied more strictly to women than to men.
Women are tired of being policed for our clothing. Dress codes are laced with words and phrases that easily conform to — and are manipulated by — a misogynistic society. United’s pass rider dress policy, whether intentional or not , is sexist, and it sexualizes young girls by calling leggings inappropriate.
As a woman and a mom of five kids, I was uncomfortable and angered by what unfolded at the Denver airport. I saw young women being scrutinized and shamed for what they looked like, something that happens daily.
Women are responsible for 85% of spending decisions, according to Bloomberg, including which airlines our families do business with. While the pass rider dress code may not directly affect what all of us wear, it sends a message to us about United’s values. It would behoove United to revisit its policies and make adjustments for 2017.
Sexism, misogyny and discrimination have always been hot buttons for women, but if the massive crowds at the Women’s March on Washington were any indication, there are millions of women out there just like me who will stand up and speak out whenever and wherever we see them in action.
Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement to prevent gun violence, and a board member for Emerge America, an organization that trains progressive women to run for office.
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