On Sunday, two teenage girls and one female child, accompanied by at least one adult, tried to board a United Airlines flight from Denver to Minneapolis. The gate agent turned them back. Why? The three girls were not properly dressed. The incident unleashed a social-media storm. But to its credit, United hasn’t backed down, instead sticking up for minimal standards in public appearance.
The story could be a social-media triumph: an unaccountable corporation tries to enforce arbitrary rules against its customers and gets digital payback. Indeed, that’s the story Shannon Watts, a gun-control activist and witness to the airport incident, advanced. “A United gate agent isn’t letting girls in leggings get on flight . . . because spandex is not allowed,” she tweeted. “I guess United [is] not letting women wear athletic wear? … They just boarded after being forced to change.”
As is often the case on social media, Watts acted the reporter without actually knowing the full—or even the partial—story. United didn’t refuse to board paying customers; it denied boarding to travelers flying for free on United’s passes for employees and family members.
United indeed has a strict dress code for such perk flyers—one that most employees understand well. “All employees and pass riders are considered representatives of United,” the company said later on Sunday. “The passengers . . . were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free . . . they need to follow our dress code.” The dress code bans spandex.
Watts, then, wasn’t exactly striking a blow for social justice. Instead, without knowing any of the facts, she inserted herself into an anodyne employer-employee matter—one that employer and employee solved on their own. All the barred passengers were able to travel once they complied with the dress code. Their punishment for breaking a minor rule was to have to change their clothing.
It’s a minor rule, but an important one. United, along with competitor airlines, is asking its off-duty employees to uphold standards of dress that society, in general, should observe. These standards are nothing onerous: take some care with your appearance. Realize you aren’t invisible as you walk through the world but are making an impression on those you see and meet.
United’s other employee standards include prohibitions on revealing your underwear or your pajamas or bathing suit while flying, wearing shorts more than three inches above the knee, wearing clothing with “holes” or “tears,” wearing flip-flops or bare feet, or wearing obscene t-shirts.
These are all reasonable demands. Various workplaces have various standards for dress: what you wear as a welder is different from what you wear as a managing partner at an investment bank. People should dress with some thought even when they're not working. Shorts, as well as tank tops and flip-flops, are for the beach or the park. Obscene t-shirts are for frat parties—or better, nowhere.
And if we can see the top band of your underpants or the straps of your bra, you’re doing something wrong: either wearing the wrong clothes or the wrong underwear or the wrong combination of the two—problems that you can easily rectify. Leggings and sweatpants, too, are for the beach or for the gym or for your house.
United’s social-media protesters, though, don’t want to hear anything about dress standards. They scream: “body-shaming,” sexism, and inconsistency. On the third count, Chrissy Teigen, the supermodel, said that she had previously flown United with just a top for a dress; she threatened next time to fly topless.
But people ought not confuse body-shaming with clothes-shaming. Americans come in all shapes and sizes. Few if any look good in spandex. By contrast, all of us can look good in something—provided we take the time to care. Dress standards, for men and for women, are not about repression, but demonstrate respect—for oneself, and for the people around you. When you are spending several hours in the close company of a few hundred strangers, does it hurt to put on a pair of real pants?
United is not only setting modest dress standards; it is also setting new standards for resisting the social-media mob. The airline has not apologized, nor has it changed its employee dress code. After making two calm statements—one reiterating its paying customers’ right to wear leggings and otherwise dress in a sloppy manner, the other explaining its employee dress code—it has remained quiet. The airline seems to understand that the thousands of complainers are making an empty boycott threat. It’s easy to tweet but harder to pay more for a flight to avoid one dominant carrier.
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