by Steven Brown, Executive Director

In an earlier post, I took a close look at the free speech issues raised by Alan Sorrentino’s surprisingly viral letter to the editor of the Barrington Times condemning women for wearing yoga pants in public, and by the corresponding response to that letter. In this post, I briefly examine the underlying concerns about sex discrimination that informed the backlash to his letter and address the question of whether this was the proper battleground for fighting that issue.

First, there really should be little question of the sexism – intended or not – that infused this letter to the editor, notwithstanding the letter writer’s alleged, but easily lost, satirical motivation. While judging the appearance of women on a fashion runway may or may not be fair game, to shame average women on their appearance based on the clothes they wear is a long-standing way of trying to keep them in their place. We may all be subject to private judgments based on our appearance, but when women are publicly chastised for how they look based on their age and what they wear, it is only fair and appropriate that some would feel a need to respond.

Indeed, at a time when a major Presidential candidate has been accused of various incidents of sexual harassment and assault, and has responded to those accusations by hurling invectives about the women’s appearance, women have a right – and may decide that they have a duty – to be vocal when a person, even a private citizen, uses the public bullhorn of a letter to the editor to raise these views.

A major criticism about the forceful response to Sorrentino’s letter – a quickly organized march that brought more than 300 women (and men) together in protest – is the seeming frivolity of the issue. After all, it can hardly be denied that much more serious problems of discrimination exist, and the wearing of yoga pants seems like a strange surrogate for those more substantive concerns. However, this objection strikes me as half right and half wrong.

Starting with the latter, no protest can address all the social injustices in the world. A march against body shaming is no different than a demonstration against police brutality or the unfair treatment of animals. The fact that the protest does not also condemn our military presence in the Middle East or the lack of a cure for cancer does not render the protest invalid or meaningless. As organizers of the march noted, this was not a protest about yoga pants, but about women and empowerment, an issue that, unfortunately, remains as vital today as it did in 1964 when Congress formally banned sex discrimination in the workplace.

At the same time, it is rather disconcerting to see how quickly hundreds of people took the time and energy to protest a person’s comments about yoga pants without really addressing the underlying roots of the problem being protested. Now that Mr. Sorrentino has been criticized for his personal views, one wonders what are the protesters’ plans to address the more institutionalized types of government discrimination that directly encourage and promote this type of body shaming.

A number of children marched in the parade, and it is worth considering in particular how young girls are treated in school, a prime place and time where notions of gender equality are formed and reinforced. In school districts across the state and the country, restrictive dress codes target girls for wearing all sorts of clothing solely because it is considered “distracting” to boys. In other words, girls are barred from wearing certain attire because boys might not be able to control themselves – the “blaming the victim” mentality that we are all familiar with.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if many school dress codes ban girls from wearing yoga pants as “inappropriate” attire.

Even more disturbingly to the point, the ACLU of Rhode Island has reported on how local PTAs, with the direct support of the schools, regularly organize blatantly stereotypical gender-exclusive events for young children. Our analysis showed that girls’ events promoted by PTAs, with school encouragement, routinely involved “sweetheart” dances and pajama parties, while the boys went to baseball games, played laser tag and watched magic shows.  It has been deeply disconcerting to note the lack of any organized – or even unorganized – outrage from parents about these activities, which lead directly to the sort of stereotyping and body shaming that prompted this protest.

Mr. Sorrentino’s letter to the editor hit a nerve. But it was a letter written by a private citizen expressing his own personal viewpoint, and who has no actual power or authority to tell women how they should look or what they should wear.

Now that the parade is over, those who were so outraged by the letter need to consider taking a closer look at root causes. At least in part, that means looking at what their own children are subject to at school, and what lessons are imparted to them there about their appearance through discriminatory dress codes and stereotyped extra-curricular activities.  Sorrentino’s letter struck hundreds of marchers as outmoded, paternalistic and sexist, but a house in Barrington is not where the real problem lies. It is time for concerned women and men to bring that same outrage to bear on the government entities that subtly encourage such attitudes.