Father Juan Carlos, pastor of our parish, is a devout and reverent priest, careful of the sacred spaces entrusted to him. He reminds us constantly that Jesus himself is present in the tabernacle and in the monstrance. He chides us for our talkativeness in church and the way we rush through our bows and genuflections.
But his biggest problem these days, when it comes to proper decorum in our sacred spaces, is made of Lycra/spandex and meant for the gym. Interestingly, athleisure (gym clothes worn in other settings) is in the news, as a gate agent for United Airlines refused to allow two young girls in leggings and traveling on a company pass to board a plane. This has set off a storm of protest, the same kind of protest that our pastor is afraid to ignite by instituting a spandex ban.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the trend, or (like me) been part of it yourself. Today’s gym clothes are comfortable and flattering, and they are making their way into work, casual and social occasions. They are also often skintight and provocative: the yoga pants hug the pelvis and thighs, covering, but not hiding, parts of the anatomy that are better left unmentioned. The convenience of wearing the same easy outfit all day has women and girls of all ages and shapes going everywhere in their spandex. Even to church.
The problem Father J.C. and United Airlines are battling is a sartorial difficulty with two parts — decreasing formality and a growing sexual provocativeness.
We are an increasingly informal and relaxed society, more devoted to our comfort and ease than our parents were. But there is something else going on. Our modern Western culture teaches us constantly that exercising our individual freedom takes precedence over objective norms and traditions — including in dress. Choices, whether ethical or sartorial, and the determination of the “right” action or outfit are now the individual’s prerogative. Being required to wear clothing that others deem appropriately modest or formal feels like an affront to our personal freedom and self-determination. Dress codes, whether set by an airline that wishes to present a dignified work environment to their customers, or by a pastor wishing to preserve an air of reverence and decorum in church, offend us because they constrain our self-expression.
Of course, that leaves the second part of the athleisure problem: the immodesty of the skintight spandex. The yoga pants have become normalized, and women who wear them do not feel immodest because their limbs are covered. Unfortunately, covered does not mean hidden, and the tights are sexually suggestive and provocative. Some women may be aware, and unconcerned, with their effect on passing men, but most, I think, are just not thinking about it from the male perspective. Teenage and preteen girls are especially impervious due to their innocence and inexperience.
From a Christian viewpoint, decorum in dress is really a way of showing love of neighbor. When we want to show we care for someone we make an extra effort and take more time with our appearance. We would not show up at a friend’s birthday party in our yoga pants and flip-flops, because this would show a lack of regard. Combed hair, clean face, shiny shoes, special-occasion clothes: these all show our love. We wear our Sunday “best” to church as a sign of our love for God, and for our brothers and sisters around us.
Provocative clothing, like plunging necklines and yoga pants, also show a lack of Christian regard for others — this time for men who are trying to keep their minds focused on prayer and their hearts pure. My husband tells me that he and his friends joke that they have to be careful where they sit in Mass because sometimes there is no sinless place to rest their eyes! And, of course, we dress modestly also for other women, especially young women, who we may otherwise hurt by our example. We hurt them by promoting clothes that sexualize and objectify them, something that is already a problem in our hypersexualized and vulgar culture.
Father J.C. is afraid to hurt the feelings of the women who come to Mass in their athleisure. The very fact that they are in Mass is a testament to their good hearts and earnest desire for holiness. He would not like to cause them pain by suggesting that they’ve been desensitized by the surrounding culture and drifted into immodesty and informality.
But if United Airlines has a brand to protect, Father J.C. has souls to protect. Getting us all on the bark that’s bound for heaven is much easier than loading a plane with travelers. But both may require a dress code.