How yoga pants became an object of controversy and defiance in Hong Kong

Coffee Lam (left) and a Lululemon store in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook/Coffee Lam and Wikimedia Commons/Jrmallpo RZIMTao
Coffee Lam (left) and a Lululemon store in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook/Coffee Lam and Wikimedia Commons/Jrmallpo RZIMTao

Actress-turned-fitness YouTuber Coffee Lam recently posted some photos of herself taking her young son to her grandfather’s grave for the first time to offer ancestor worship and to go for a hike afterwards during the Chung Yeung Festival, one of Hong Kong’s two tomb-sweeping holidays. 

Coffee Lam and her son. Photo: Facebook/Coffee Lam

It would simply have been a heartwarming social media post, which one might just give a “like” in passing, had netizens not instead zeroed in on the fact that she had worn a pair of tight-fitting yoga pants.

What followed was a deluge of negative comments.

“What to wear is a personal choice, but one should dress in a light, dignified and simple manner when going for ancestor worship,” said one netizen.

“Why must women behave in an immoral manner to be regarded as cool?” another asked.

“Any normal person would not wear yoga pants to a ball or an academic awards ceremony,” said another internet user. “It’s not too appropriate to wear such thin and form-fitting clothing at the cemetery or columbarium. Even if Ms Lam’s ancestors don’t mind, it’s not so good for other ancestors to see. She could change into yoga pants after ancestor worship to hike.”

While the criticism leveled against Lam was scathing and impassioned, the debate over whether yoga pants should be worn in public, and if so, on which occasions, is not new in Hong Kong. 

In recent years, wearers of the form-fitting hosiery outside the yoga studio have often been shamed for being indecent and inappropriate.

Why has this innocuous piece of clothing become an object of controversy and how are women like Lam fighting back?

Swearing by the yoga pants

Originally designed as fit-for-purpose attire, the leggings have since shifted from the yoga studio to the high street, becoming a fashionable athleisure staple. 

For many, the yoga pants are a casual everyday piece that they can slip into to grab a quick lunch or to head out for a day with family.

Stock photo. Photo: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

While it is difficult to pin down who invented the yoga pants — with similar slim and stretchy pants dating as far back as the 1960s — Lululemon Athletica can certainly take credit for popularizing them over the past two decades.

Stock photo of a Lululemon store in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jrmallpo RZIMTao

The athletic apparel brand offers yoga pants made using a range of fabrics featuring a variety of stylish and colorful prints. They tout properties such as being moisture-wicking and odor-reducing and qualities including smooth textures and a barely-there feel. The company has attracted plenty of competition from sports brands like Nike and Adidas, which have also marketed similar products.  

With the promise of a comfortable yet fashionable alternative to baggy clothes for exercise or even just going out, it’s no surprise that the trend has caught on around the world, including Hong Kong.

Yoga pants = indecent and promiscuous?

Vogue’s Rachel Marlowe once wrote that it is acceptable to wear yoga pants for occasions ranging from going on a school run to standing in line for your morning coffee to even business lunches or drinks.

But such sentiments don’t seem to be widely shared in Hong Kong. 

In fact, it is common to see pictures of people (mostly women) in yoga pants photographed in public shared on the internet and social media, where they are often met with nasty comments. 

They tend to revolve around opinions about how the pants are ugly and indecent as the outline of the wearer’s derrière or underwear can be seen through their thin fabric. Very often, the comments are accompanied by assumptions that the wearer is low-class or promiscuous.

Yoga pants fans strike back

It’s not the first time that Lam, who is a certified yoga instructor, was publicly shamed for wearing yoga pants out in the public. 

But after the pics from her family outing got criticized, Lam said she wasn’t going to take it anymore and decided to make a stand by issuing a “30 days of leggings” challenge.

“If you think we don’t look good [in yoga pants], which are close-fitting, revealing and make us look fat, do you think we definitely think that your clothes look good?” the outspoken former actress asked. 

“What I want to say is that in this world, you only need to please yourself. It’s none of other people’s business what you like to wear when going out (as long as it is legal).”

Coffee Lam launches a “30 days of leggings” challenge. Photo: Facebook/Coffee Lam

Lam said the challenge is meant to empower others to have their say over what they put on their bodies. 

“Whether you’re going out to eat, shop, for an event or to do grocery shopping, wear leggings on whatever occasion you can think of (if circumstances permit). I want to tell everyone that I have the say on what I like to wear 🙋🏻‍♀️ not you 🤫,” she said. 

“I want to speak out for all the girls who like to wear yoga pants to go out 🤘🏽(including me).”

Lam’s views were also echoed by many netizens who showed up in the comments to defend her choice to wear yoga pants during her ancestor worship trip and point out the larger issue surrounding the conservative sensibilities of Hongkongers who like to police what others wear. 

“It’s not like [she’s] revealing anything. [She’s] covering most parts and just wearing a tight-fit pair of pants to hike,” said one internet user. 

“In another part of the world, a group of women are fighting for not wearing the headscarf,” said another, referring to the ongoing protests in Iran over the government-mandated hijab for women. “In Hong Kong, we’re actually having a debate about why women are wearing yoga pants in public.” 

One commenter on Lam’s Facebook post, who claims to be a Malaysian, said it is a trend to wear yoga pants in the country, which has Islam as the official religion. 

“If I’m going to exercise at night, I will wear yoga pants after I wash up in the day until at night,” she said.

“I didn’t think there would still be such conservative people in Hong Kong (I’m not saying all Hongkongers, but only those leaving conservative comments).”

Another internet user pointed out that while some might feel that ancestor worship is a sacred and solemn event, she just thinks of it as a regular family activity. She also questioned the critics if they had cleansed themselves and abstained from meat for three days before performing ancestor worship (as is recommended by certain Taoist beliefs), and whether it was disrespectful if they had not done so. 

Some have also supported Lam’s challenge by posting photos of themselves in yoga pants in the comments of her Facebook post. 

“Support, I’m always wearing [yoga pants] recently, such as to the wet market and to pick up my child. [Yoga pants] are only for exercise? What I’m doing is also manual labor,” said one netizen who shared a photo of herself in yoga pants.

“I always work on your [Lam’s] 20-minute thigh-slimming exercise. It’s very effective… nowadays, I wear yoga pants out frequently. They’re really comfortable,” said another.  

“Even if I’m fat, I also like to wear [yoga pants]. They’re very comfortable,” another internet user chimed in.

Lam and her supporters in Hong Kong are not alone in their struggle for sartorial acceptance. Even in places like the United States, yoga pants parades have been held by women in recent years to defend their right to wear the leggings against those who claim they are indecent.

The day when women around the world are allowed to wear what they choose in public without getting criticized is still probably far away, but for now, it’s the ladies in yoga pants who are leading the way to that freer, more comfortable tomorrow.


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