It’s Just Shameful

Apparently over the weekend, some kids tried to fly United in leggings and the world broke. I mean, I get that people need a break from the absolute bananas situation with Russian and imaginary wire taps and healthcare and killing bears and selling browser history and Kushner’s shady shit and holy cow, just let the kids wear whatever they want, they might get bombed by Germany over a fake invoice that may or may not have actually happened.

*deep breaths*

  • I’ve been informed, snarkily, that the kids were pass riders and should have known better.
  • I’ve been informed that leggings are not suitable “pants” for anyone, including David Bowie, and I’ve been treated to numerous shots of see-through leggings posted all over the internet in an attempt to shame the people wearing them, even though some of the pictures appear to be from catalogs or advertisements.
  • I’ve seen suggestions that if the “dad” had on shorts, and it replied that if the dad’s shorts came three inches below his knee, they were acceptable. (I’m not entirely clear on how shorts coming three inches below the knee are still shorts and not capri pants, but I’m clearly no fashion expert.
    I’ve seen the cries that it’s sexist and the rebuttals that it’s not sexist if it’s applied to everyone, and the suggestions that everyone just shut up because they’re stupid.
  • I’ve seen accusations that the company didn’t respond fast enough or properly to quell the tweetstorm, and I’ve seen people defend the company for even having to listen to some woman’s judgmental garbage.

A few things:
1)   I’ve worked with kids a long time now. I know a lot of people’s experience with kids comes from their own or from relatives or friends’ kids and they may only know the kind who, if told once they have to wear a certain thing on a plane, will automatically put it on without fuss. I’ve met a couple of those kids, too. One is 10 and one is 13. One has a parent who is a doctor and the other has parents who work for the airlines. These children are not representative of the rest of the children I’ve met.

I’ve also met 9-10 year olds who looked like 15-16 year olds and acted mature enough most of the time to fool people. I’ve met 9-10 year olds who looked like 15-16 year olds who acted 9-10 or who acted 6-7. I’ve met kids who were 9-10 and looked 5-6, but acted older, and kids who acted much younger. Kids mature at different rates, have different personalities, different environments, and sometimes disabilities I’ve met 10-year-olds who could be told once, six years ago, that to fly on a pass they need to dress like they’re going to a business meeting and they’d be up early and in a suit before the alarm, and I’ve met 10-year-olds who forget their lunch box once a week, leave a trail of socks behind them like breadcrumbs in an evil witch’s forest, and will look at you like you just suggested they eat magic beans and fly when you tell them to practice a thing you just showed them five seconds before.

I’ve also met a lot of kids whose parents are, or have, gone through a divorce, and act out as a way of coping. I’ve met kids who were being bullied at school, kids who had suddenly hit a growth spurt and self-conscious or awkward, kids who sold drugs for grandma to pay the rent, and kids who checked mom daily for new track marks. Not all of those kids are likely to be pass riders, maybe, but since all the accusations started flying (pun alert — too late) before any investigative journalism and since many of the people doing the snarking had done little more than read one biased report, let’s unpack some possibilities.

  • The pass rider they were with was a relative rarely seen.
  • The pass rider they were with was an estranged parent they don’t fly with often.
  • The pass rider they were with only understood the rules as they applied to men/boys and didn’t explain the rules to them prior to leaving for the airport. (My husband’s a smart guy and has been married 20+ years, but he still can’t seem to remember the difference between a dress and a skirt, so for all we know out in spectator land, the “dad” thought “leggings” meant hose/tights, thought what the kids had on were “pants.”)
  • The pass rider had already argued with them for twenty minutes before they left for the airport and decided to leave it up to the airport because “holy cow, I’m done with this.”
  • The pass rider is either very new to pass travel and didn’t fully remember the rules or the pass rider is so accustomed to pass travel for himself, he didn’t consider that other’s might not know the rules.

The thing is, shaming kids can leave a lasting impression, something I attempted to point out to a few people, who decided I just should never fly on a pass.

Ten-thirteen is about the age when you see more kids at the pool and the water park in tee shirts because they’re self-conscious and not just because mom yelled at them they better not get sunburned. (One of my jobs has been summer camp counselor.)

Some kids are secure enough in who they are that a lady can call them out for wearing something “inappropriate” in public and they’ll forget about by dinner. Other kids? They’ll never want to wear leggings again, they’ll develop eating disorders or cutting, or just never want to fly again. I realize that sounds crazy to adults who have never been shamed like that as kids, but that stuff sticks with emotional or vulnerable kids.

When I was younger, I got very tall for my age group very fast. Clothes didn’t fit right because kids’ clothes were too small/short and women’s clothes were cut for hips I didn’t have. I’m old enough, too, that even women’s pants that were small enough in the waist were too short. This was before Tall was a thing outside specialty shops in big cities, so I was regularly asked if I was waiting for a flood. It took me until about 35 to wear a pair of capri pants in public because they were too much like regular pants felt like when I was younger.

To solve this problem, I liked to wear shorts as often as weather permitted… until some kids picked on my “whale legs” because my giant, pasty thighs spread out across chairs when I sat.

So I found shorts as tight as I could squeeze into (to hold in the spread) and as long as I could find (post-Bermuda era). Which went okay for about three days until I was informed by an authority figure that the shorts were showing too much leg and too tight. I am still self-conscious about shorts in public. I am in my forties and I still arrange myself on seats so that my legs can’t “spread” and won’t wear “walking” shorts because as a teenager not only were they deemed too short, I was laughed at by the kids for them being too long. That shit can stick with you.

Now, I get that “shut up, stupid snowflake, and die” is standard advice for strangers on the internet, but maybe not the best advice for dealing with kids, especially if they’re yours or kids you care about.

2) There’s some debate about whether United responded correctly and quickly enough. Some say yes. Some say no. Some just think they could have avoided a lot of confusion by reacting slightly differently.

Here’s the tweets as they went down.

  1. United responds at first by asking if the tweeter talked to the kids – likely trying to establish if they can solve it person-to-person.
  2. She says no, they’ve boarded. (This would’ve been a great time for United to say something like, “It’s possible they were Pass/non rev riders for whom we have higher dress code standards.” That may have nipped the whole thing in the bud.)
  3. United didn’t say that, though. United said they had the right to make anyone change. And then tweeted about a general dress code for all passengers. That made it seem, suggested even, that they had the right to throw off any child wearing leggings to travel. Anyone knowing or having seen a live female child lately will know leggings are the in thing, so…
  4. This is where the internet went nuts, and the whole story got off the rails.
  5. United still could have reined it in a little had they replied to the original tweeter that the kids were pass riders and it was a dress code only for pass travel. It would have been in the original thread for everyone to find pretty easily.
  6. Instead, United responded to another tweeter that it was pass travel, causing an already out of control Twitter mess to fracture into multiple threads faster.

3) People said a dress code that doesn’t specify gender can’t be sexist except, well… if you’re calling out clothes that only one group tends to wear (outside of productions or Halloween or festivals), you’re talking to that group whether you label it or not. If your policy says no shorts shorter than three inches below the knee, you’re telling women not to wear shorts because that’s not shorts, that’s capris. You’re also telling very tall men not to wear shorts unless they can afford them to be custom tailored, you know for the “but men” audience. I’m sure somewhere there is a guy in pirate leggings and a unicorn shirt who will disagree, but most of the leggings-buying market is women, and they’ve taken to wearing them because they’re comfortable and they don’t usually bind in places when sitting for a long time like slacks or jeans.

Leggings get a lot of flack as it is, particularly from fat-shamers and from older people who see them as something no respectable person would leave their house in. They’re entitled to their opinions, of course, but part of the backlash in this story has been from recipients of some of that shaming, often hurtful, language who are a little fed up with everyone telling them what they can and can’t wear for their age and body type.

The way this story turned had less to do, in a lot of ways, with one airline’s pass travel dress code and way more to do with a lot of women who’ve felt like everyone was prodding their last working nerve for months or years and needed a release that didn’t have to do with a potentially life-threatening political situation. They’re the women who’ve just come from a meeting where they’ve been told they need to smile more, or they’ve been on their feet for seven hours in heels because that’s their work dress code, or they’ve been chasing a toddler up the aisle of a grocery store only to be stopped and asked when they’re expecting number two (and they aren’t pregnant).

One person told me I should never use pass travel if I feel like this, as if to suggest I don’t have what it takes to wear nice clothes. Or maybe it was intended as a different sort of insult. I get to interpret insults as I wish because once they’re given to me, they’re mine.

To that, I’ll say that when I travel by air, I tend to overdress as best I can without wearing something that will get easily wrinkled, dirty, or uncomfortable. I tend to fly in heels and a suit jacket and some form of black pants – even if I plan to go camping when I reach my destination. I tend to overdress for conferences and parties – except those where the unspoken dress code is “overpriced designer chic” because my budget disagrees with that style.

I do that because I spent too many years working in Palm Beach County where nothing I wore was ever good enough. It was always the wrong designer or the wrong style or the wrong color. It was also almost always uncomfortable because I was trying to squeeze myself into things that weren’t cut right or were made cheaply or weren’t me in an effort to fit in with people who were never going to accept me.

Again, shit sticks with you.

4) I saw a lot of comments about how the girls should have known better, but no mention of how the “dad” should have known better. I feel pretty confident in saying that if they’d been traveling with a woman, even if it was a distant aunt they just found out about last Tuesday, she’d have been taken to task for not properly dressing her children. As a society, we’re big on shaming mothers, which I’m sure was part of the backlash from female fliers.

We’re not a society that seems to expect fathers to know anything. We joke about them burning the house down warming up soup on TV, and we erect statues of them if they know how to brush hair. So, yeah, he might not have known any better, but it’s not like we really demanded he know either.


In the past year, I’ve learned that people are very much concerned with women knowing their place, even other women, and that having an opinion is only okay if A) it’s the right one, or B) you’re a guy. Apparently it damages your “brand” to have thoughts.

Except, I’ve working on edits for a manuscript about a thirteen-year-old, who in many ways is very mature, but in other ways holds a lot of deep shame, fear, and anger. Who she is on the surface is not who she is underneath, but she relies so much on the surface version of herself, she avoids acknowledging anything about herself, even to herself.

I’m fairly certain the two little girls riding pass on United were not raised as tragically as the character I’ve been editing. They may lead a very charmed life. But I also know we don’t always know what’s under the surface, and maybe we’d all be better people if we’d think about what’s under there once in a while.