As the warm weather season approaches, school administrators across the United States and Canada seem to have a new goal: enforcing the dress code. Girls all-over are being sent home or reprimanded for wearing leggings, yoga pants, sleeveless shirts, and other “revealing” items of clothing. In Quebec, a girl was reprimanded and criticized for wearing shorts that were not beyond her fingertips. She launched a protest by putting up posters around her school, calling on the school rectify the inequalities in their dress code policy. This is not the first protest of its kind. On June 6th, 2012, students at Stuyvesant High School protested a dress code that they felt was unfair by staging a “Slutty Wednesday” where they purposely broke the dress code. In March of 2014, middle school students in protested dress code restrictions on leggings and yoga pants with slogans such as “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” This attacks the basis of many dress code rules whose foundation rests on not “distracting” other students, namely boys.
Dress codes place the guilt of boys’ behavior on the bodies of women. Not only is this belief heteronormative—with the policy expressly based on the actions of a heterosexual male—it also contributes to sexual objectification, slut-shaming, and rape culture. Dress codes are often arbitrary, focusing on fingertip length bottoms and sleeved shirts. Arm and finger length differ from person to person, so it is not a consistent standard for appropriateness. It is commonplace for taller girls with longer legs and arms to be stopped in the hallways or in classrooms for dress code violations, simply because the length to which their fingers reach is farther than that of shorter girls, or because their legs give the appearance of shorter clothing. Girls with more developed bodies are also more likely to be stopped because administrators see their bodies as more sexually inviting to the male gaze. This borders on creepy, and contributes to the shaming of women for their bodies. These policies and their inconsistent enforcement teach girls to be ashamed of their natural anatomy. It teaches girls that they are sexual objects, not people, as clavicles, random parts of thighs, shoulders, and sternums lose their place as normal anatomy, instead replaced in the mind as sexual stimulants for heterosexual males.
The aforementioned rationale for dress codes follows in the line of thinking that blames women for rape. It reinforces the “boys will be boys” mentality that not only excuses men from controlling a lecherous gaze, but also tells young girls and women that they cannot stop sexual actions of men, they must act to avoid inviting those actions upon themselves. This strips women of their power of bodily autonomy. It tells girls that females have no choice but to suffer the male gaze, so they must dress with that in mind. It tells girls that boys can get away with inappropriate sexual behavior because it is “in their nature.” This gives males a pass to make sexual comments towards female students when they see fit because they are “asking for it” based on the way they are dressed. Does this sound familiar? The cultural norm of this gender inequality is so pervasive that a kindergarten student in Georgia was criticized for wearing a skirt that was “too short.” The lesson this teaches that kindergartener in not about discipline or professionalism; it teaches that little girl that her body is not a distraction. She is not a person, she is an object to be gazed upon by others.
The educational environment these policies foster teaches both girls and boys that a woman’s body is more important than her education. It allows for an expansion of the already rampant sexualization of women, forcing girls to view benign parts of their bodies as attractants for men. Those who argue that dress codes only teach discipline and that they prepare students for life in the workplace do not take into account all aspects of the issue. First of all, to whom are dress codes teaching discipline. Mostly girls are stopped on the violations, while boys are not reprimanded for lechery or inappropriate gazing. Second of all, where someone works is a choice while a place of study is generally not. Dress codes certainly differ by workplace, and “professional” in one setting may not fit another. Teaching students professionalism is different than barring students from wearing shorts on a hot day in June. In addition, how “professional” is it for males to gaze at female coworkers’ bodies? In the real world, that could invite a litany of sexual harassment charges, and possibly being fired by a respectful establishment.
In the end, the dress code is supposed to be about respect. However, this respect is going in the wrong direction. The current rules and enforcement of dress code disrespects the choices of girls. It disrespects the control which males have over their actions, giving them excuses for sexual behavior, which can lead down a slippery slope towards sexual violence. It disrespects and weakens the authority of the administration as they enforce arbitrary and inefficient rules in the educational system. Yet another inequality faces young women today, and this battle must be fought against the schools, gender inequality, and rape culture to enact real change.
[Image Attribute: Twitter via Daily Mail]