This is not a post about getting in shape, this is a post about internalised misogyny.
It’s also a post prompted by my past collaborations with Asquith, who chose to sponsor this post after I sent it along to them to share my thoughts. I’ve been wearing Asquith’s non-toxic sustainable activewear almost exclusively for a year and a half now, and it’s no secret that I’m a big fan. But in that time I’ve also had a lot of space to reflect on the many things I’ve continued to work to unlearn over the years. Did I expect this level of reflection to come from a search for ethical pilates clothes? Of course not, I just expected to find a conscious option for non-dance exercise. While I did achieve this goal, I’ve also gained a lot more that I felt I wanted to share. So, let’s talk about a journey of continued feminism work, through the lens of sustainable leggings.
Storytime: I remember, many years ago, I used to judge people who wore leggings as trousers.
I should preface that statement by saying that I was a teenager, and most definitely a bit of an idiot in general. I can only thank god that no matter what my opinions were, at least I didn’t vocalise them.
Regardless, at the time I was internally riding on my moral high horse, looking down on others who were making clothing choices I didn’t like. Wearing leggings as trousers.
I’m glad to, at least, say that it wasn’t because of the way the bodies of the people wearing them looked. I didn’t think that anyone was ‘too large’ to be wearing leggings or that they shouldn’t be wearing them because they didn’t have the ‘right body’ for those clothes. I credit most of this to being surrounded by many different bodies while training in contemporary dance. That context could probably have gone either way in terms of how it shaped me, but I was lucky to be part of a training environment that for the most part created healthy cultures around body image, which I’m very thankful for. (That being said, the attitude that leggings are only for the thin is still incredibly prevalent, dangerous, and just one symptom of a larger issue we have around fat-shaming when the realities of being larger are actually a lot more nuanced than that).
However, this wasn’t the case with me. I was judgemental because I didn’t like leggings as trousers as a fashion choice.
I know how silly this sounds now. The increased diversity of legging designs and styling, coupled with a growing interest in mental and physical health that has led to a boom of activewear love, has proven that leggings can be a great styling choice that is comfortable, convenient, and easily flexible for day to night dressing. Most of us know this now, and leggings these days provide us with endless possibilities beyond exercise. When sustainable, long-lasting and non-toxic, like Asquith, they’re a brilliant option.
But please forgive me, it was the noughties and I didn’t know better.
In my town leggings rose to popularity just as I was starting secondary school, aged 11. It was also 2004. In those early days before social media where early noughties fashion reigned supreme. The styling at the time was both a blessing (without the pressures of Instagram) and a curse (because I made some somewhat questionable choices). I still remember the first time I saw leggings worn as trousers: a friend from school came to my house wearing luminous pink leggings, and a pink and brown striped top to match. I was horrified. I didn’t like how it looked, why didn’t she just wear something a little longer for a bit more cover, what if the leggings were too sheer?
I thought this judgement came from some superior fashion knowledge, like the fact that I’d been reading Vogue at a young age meant that I must know better in some way, and she was breaking sacred ‘fashion rules’. What was actually happening was internalised misogyny. Because there is no instance where I should try and police the clothing choices of someone else. It is, quite literally, their body their choice.
Internalised misogyny is defined as women subconsciously projecting sexist ideas onto other women or themselves, and it can show up in many subtle ways. Even those who declare themselves as feminists can find this happening, as we have preconceived ideas about how women should exist, which stem for societal expectations and gender norms that are ingrained in us as we grow up (you can also see this occur in other instances of oppression, for example, internalised homophobia or internalised racism).
We see misogyny popping up more overtly in rules imposed on a systemic level, both in dress codes that have been put into effect that ban leggings and in policies that ban women from wearing burkinis when swimming. These are on either side of the spectrum, one attacking women for being too exposed and one attacking them for being too covered, however both attempt to subjugate and control a woman’s choices by deeming what is ‘appropriate’ for them, therefore removing their agency and personhood. Unfortunately, we also see these choices internalised in the minds of women too: just look at the Christian woman who decided to stop wearing leggings in order to “honour God”. Just look at my own teenage judgement which, while ostensibly being about fashion, was actually rooted in the same issue.
Internalized misogyny does not refer outright to a belief in the inferiority of women. It refers to the byproducts of this societal view that cause women to shame, doubt, and undervalue themselves and others of their gender. It shows up even in the most feminist and socially conscious of us. And it’s insidious.
If internalized misogyny were an intentional plan of patriarchy — which it isn’t; it’s just an automatic effect of it — it would be a brilliant one. It allows women to perpetuate the oppression imposed on them for centuries without any effort on anyone’s part.
As an adult reflecting on this I can’t help but ask myself: did the fact that my friend was a girl mean that her fashion choices were more important to me? (did you see teenage boys in the early noughties? I don’t think I judged what they were wearing even once). Did I associate being ‘presentable’ and making good fashion choices with being the ‘right’ kind of female? Why did I feel I had any right to make any judgement or concern myself with the fashion choices of another woman?
Looking back, I’m eternally glad that I kept my mouth shut and that I learned better, and I do believe that I grew out of this over time. But it’s still important to acknowledge that in my youth there was a time when I felt that it was ok to pass judgement on at least one woman depending on how they dressed. On its own it might seem small and inconsequential, but it is these small attitudes and microaggressions that lead to much larger and more toxic issues; feeding into rape culture and the idea that someone was ‘asking for it’ depending on what she was wearing, or creating insurmountable pressure on women to look ‘put together’ or else be shamed. And let’s not overlook how internalised approaches to gender hurt trans and gender non-conforming people too. It shows that, even for the aware, there are still parts of skewed societal norms that seep into our subconscious, that we must make a specific effort to unlearn and undo.
Unsurprisingly, plenty of Vogue editors feel strongly about the topic. “Women shouldn’t have to apologize for their leggings any more than men should have to apologize for their skin-tight muscle tees”…
If male students started wearing Under Armour leggings to class—the same leggings I’ve seen many guys wear to Equinox, either under their shorts or alone—it’s hard to imagine that the mothers and fathers of female students would plead with them to wear something “more decent.
How the gym opened my eyes
While I may not have actively thought these things, or acted upon these thoughts, for many years, it was only when I started incorporating going to the gym as part of my daily routine that these past memories floated to the surface. It was at this point that I confronted myself and examined these memories as opportunities for learning and growth.
The reason was simple: I started wearing leggings as trousers. I know, the hypocrisy!
But seriously, it’s the most obvious choice when you’re going to the gym regularly. There was no grand revelation, it was just the most practical option without getting incredibly hot. It also meant that I wore leggings as trousers when I walked to the gym. And if I had to pop into the shops or run an errand after, well then I was doing that in my legging-trousers too.
When I started working with Asquith about a year ago, my access to clothing that supported the exercise I was doing also increased. Their range of activewear was tight-fitting, yes, but they were also breathable, comfortable, and super soft, which fit perfectly with my increased gym activity that you can’t wear dance leotards for. When lifting weights I didn’t want to be boiling to death in a baggy fleece-lined tracksuit, when boxing I didn’t want to think about whether my bum was adequately covered, and when doing HIIT I definitely didn’t want to wonder if someone else might be judging me for what I was wearing, it’s already hard enough just trying to survive the 45 seconds.
No, I just wanted options that were sustainable, ethical, fit well, and did the job. Asquith provided those solutions and I loved it! At first it felt a little out of my comfort zone but, in reality, this level of exposure is no different to a pair of skinny jeans, and I soon got over it altogether.
I can even track how this changed over time in my mind. From mild discomfort last year to earlier this summer, when I decided to take up running again. Getting back into it has meant I’ve been outside, running several kilometres to the beach and back, all in just my leggings and a tight top. And it’s been fine. Running isn’t easy, and I want to wear whatever enables me to be active and happy, without anything else getting in the way. Apart from one run I did in London where I was mildly concerned about being catcalled (but I wasn’t! Hooray!) I no longer care about these factors. My body is perfectly acceptable in all clothes, whether my tightest Asquith workout gear or my baggiest trousers, and I cheer on anyone else who wants to choose the same. Because their body is great in leggings too. Their body is great, all the time.
So, that’s the message. Your body is amazing.
Your body is amazing because it holds your mind and your spirit, which only you possess. Your body is amazing because it carries you every day, because it breathes and blinks without you even needing to think about it, because it allows you to exist on this planet, here with us, where you are needed.
So wear what you want, and let other people wear what they want too. Internalised misogyny is hard to spot, and takes work to unlearn, but ultimately we all end up happier for it. Let leggings as trousers reign supreme! Or don’t. It’s your body, your choice. And that’s what matters.
To diversify the bodies/people that you see on social media, I also encourage you to follow the work of Marielle Elizabeth, Aja Barber and Cat Chiang. While self-love is a journey for all of us, I carry a lot of privilege from being thin, white and able-bodied, and so I do not suffer discrimination in society because of my body in most areas. Please make sure to seek out perspectives from folks who are often ignored in these conversations, as their contributions are invaluable.