“Show your mind, not your behind.” A faculty member said these words to the student body at my high school about a dress code incident that occurred earlier that day. Countless girls, including myself, were forced to change, or even miss class in order to go home and get “appropriate” pants because teachers sent them to the office on dress code violation, telling them that they were distracting other classmates. I came to school that day in a respectable outfit: black pants, a blouse, and a cardigan, but was told to go down to the office, even before I made it to first hour. They told me my pants were too tight but that I could keep them on as long as I put on a longer sweater that covered my butt. I had to miss the first part of my class, walk out to my car in 30-something degree weather (luckily I had a long sweater in my trunk). Other girls had to call home, call parents at work, drive home, or even put on baggy pants that the office provided for them. I just happened to luck out that day, but other girls were frustrated and even embarrassed, especially the ones who had to walk around for a grueling 7 hours in a pair of baggy men’s pants most likely from the lost and found.
When does dress code go too far, degrading young women and also hindering their education? Which is worse: that these young women supposedly distract young men, or that women are taught that their bodies are sexual objects and that they must cover them up? Dress codes can be conductive in certain workplaces to promote professionalism or a uniform look. But it seems like nowadays principals, teachers, and other staff in schools are using them to police young women’s bodies and shame them.
I first noticed this when I was around the age of 12, the age when young girls are entering puberty and start to become self-conscious about their bodies. This is also a prime age to teach young women about positive body image and self-confidence. This becomes extremely difficult when they live in a world where they want to dress in a way that’s comfortable and makes them feel confident but where authority figures are degrading them, telling them that their butts, legs, shoulders, and breasts are dirty and shameful. After trying to argue this point so many times in middle school and high school, I heard the same excuses over and over – there’s a male section of the dress code too, girls clothes makes it harder to follow the dress code, it’s easier to have the girls cover themselves up than to stop the boys from fantasizing – all excuses that seem pathetic and goddamn sexist. As a student, I never felt like I could defend myself in these situations because whenever I tried to argue my case, the teachers and faculty members always got their way. They had all the power in their hands, and the students were powerless. No one wants to fight a battle they know they cannot win, and at the end of the battle I either ended up with a detention or a trip to the office to call home in order to get appropriate clothes. Dress codes are so inherently female oriented, stating things like no midriff, no sleeveless tops, no leggings or skinny jeans. We used to always joke about it, saying things like “do my shoulders turn you on?” but, now that I think about it, this was a very valid point. If my shoulders were to cause sexual arousal in a young male or, god forbid, a male teacher, that is not in my control and would be a bit concerning. What is so bad about showing shoulders or wearing skirts above the knee? If a male is distracted or has a problem with it, he should be the one to leave the room or receive the detention, not the hardworking female student that is trying to get an education.
A year ago today I would have been only half confident in these convictions but now, as a college freshman, my convictions have been strengthened. There’s no defined dress code in college but yet, magically, the males aren’t distracted in class. The girl to the right of me wearing leggings and the girl to the left of me wearing baggy sweatpants are both respectable young women, both learning the same thing regardless of the tightness of the fabric covering their legs. They come to class comfortably dressed in clothes that make them feel good, just like those middle and high school students, and yet aren’t forced to change their clothes, call home, or get a detention for it. I think we as teachers, students, mothers, fathers, or anyone with a relationship to a young woman, need to take a stand against this unnecessary body policing. We can start by contacting school staff and also publicizing these incidents among the community to raise awareness of this issue. We need to teach young women and men that this sort of shaming is not acceptable, not now, not ever. If we take these steps we can create a comfortable and fair environment in schools for young women and also destroy this cycle of body sexualizing and shaming.
University of Michigan
Reprinted from print issue 9 of What the F Magazine