Julia Lapan’s 3-year-old daughter was excited to take her first gymnastics class at Classics Gymnastics. “She ran onto the floor,”—only to be sent back because she was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
“I bristled at that because she was wearing what the boys were,” says Lapan, who asked that her daughter’s name not be used. “The coaches gave me quite a bit of pushback.”
At another class, the little girl, now 4, was wearing a leotard with shorts when the coach sent her back off the floor because the shorts weren’t approved, says Lapan. “This time she was crying.”
The mother says she’s frustrated and finds the dress code sexist, especially for kids whose young whose bodies look pretty much the same.
Spencer Watkins, the owner of Classics Gymnastics, says there are good reasons for the attire policy, which mandates leotards with footless tights or bike tights for girls and T-shirts with gym shorts for boys.
“The biggest issue is accidental nudity,” he says. “They spend a lot of time upside down.”
The other is that with coaches catching kids, there can be a lot of hands-on. Coaches don’t want to touch kids “in places where they’d be uncomfortable,” says Watkins. “That’s something we don’t want.”
He also notes that competitive teams compete in leotards.
Other programs for kids offer more leeway in attire. The Little Gym, for instance, is a noncompetitive facility, and children can wear shorts or leotards, says owner Sarah Oliva. “The only thing we require is that kids go barefoot.”
At the Ballet School of Charlottesville, Atsuko Nakamoto says students wear different colored leotards so she can tell which class she’s teaching. Are there exceptions? “Naturally,” she answers.
Students can wear shorts or a scarf so they can be more comfortable, she says. “I ask them to wear fitted clothes so I can see the body line so I can correct it,” she says. “If a kid wants to wear shorts, I’m fine with it as long as there are no pockets, because they want to put their hands in them.”
Lapan says Watkins has offered to give her a refund, but except for the dress code, she likes the gym.
“I see how society treats girls and boys differently,” she says. “I just want them to play by the same rules. Girls feel like they can’t speak up.”
The worst, she says, is “for toddlers to be subjected to different dress codes and for them to be humiliated and sent off the floor.” And she worries about children who are gender nonconforming.
During the era of #MeToo and the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, Lapan says, “It’s time to shine a spotlight on sexist policies that create false dichotomies between boys and girls, not to mention being totally tone deaf to the needs of trans and gender-nonconforming children.”