Ok. Today I am going to write about an issue that has bugged me for years, in many different ways: dress codes.
I got to thinking about this topic again when I read this essay by Marion Mayer, titled “Why I’m taking a stand against my school’s ‘dress code’”. In it, Mayer outlines many of the problems she has with a dress code based on the ideas that “modest is hottest” and “boys will be boys” (I’ll give you a minute to gag).
This is by no means a new issue; every now and then, a news article will pop up about a school that wouldn’t let a girl enter the prom because she was showing “too much” cleavage, a parent who chronicled 8th-grade girls’ short dresses (and her horror at these dresses) on her blog, or schools banning “too tight” pants and leggings.
Once one of those articles pops up, a bazillion more reactions will appear on various blogs. The opinions put forth in these posts will range from “Good, girls dress too revealingly these days!” to “Let girls wear whatever they want! Self-expression!”
Obviously, there are a LOT of issues inherent in the idea of school dress codes. I’m going to outline some of the ones that I personally think are problematic, but this is not to be taken as an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear other perspectives in the comments!
Monitoring dress = monitoring bodies
Dress codes and their enforcement seem to disproportionately affect girls. This is problematic for many reasons. First, it sends the message that girls’ bodies are things that need to be monitored by people who “know better”. This kind of mindset is a very mild version of the kind of opinion that thinks that “authority figures” should be able to monitor other things about girls’ and women’s bodies – like whether or not they have access to birth control or safe, legal abortions. It sets the groundwork for a lifetime of feeling like other people are allowed to make decisions about your body and what you do with it.
Next, it sends the message that one of the most important aspects of who a girl is is what she looks like. By making and enforcing dress codes, we repeatedly bring the topic of girls’ appearance to the forefront, making it seem like it’s normal that that’s an important thing to talk about. (Also, since dress code regulations often have to do with skimpiness or tightness, they reinforce the idea that a woman’s body is always sexual).
Furthermore, dress codes are enforced unequally. A skinny girl wearing a cute sundress and a curvy girl with big boobs wearing the same cute sundress might both be in violation of the dress code (if it involves regulations about things like the width of straps or the length of a skirt), but I have to wonder who is more likely to be spoken to about it. I’d venture to guess the girl who is “showing more skin,” which, if you think about it, is simply the girl who HAS more skin. It’s very easy to go from policing clothing to policing bodies themselves, and that is not appropriate. (Also, if the rule is something vague like “no excessive cleavage” – even though I’m not sure if that’s something that’s allowed to show up in writing in dress codes – we are again punishing the girl who HAS more cleavage and asking her to dress differently than the girl with small boobs and no cleavage to speak of). While I’m a big believer in dressing for your body, I also believe that enforcing different rules for people of different sizes is problematic.
“Boys will be boys”
Finally – and this is the big one – one of the most often-cited reasons for a dress code is that girls wearing skimpy outfits will “be distracting to boys” both in the classroom and in social situations.
Do we see why that’s an issue? First, it implies that girls are responsible for boys’ thoughts and actions. It’s not really a huge logical leap from “I couldn’t concentrate on my reading because her dress was so tight” to “I assumed she WANTED to have sex with me since her dress was so tight”. By attributing that kind of influence to girls’ outfits, we’re effectively saying that boys are not responsible for what they think or do in the presence of a girl who is showing a little skin.
Furthermore, that’s kind of insulting to boys, don’t you think? This mindset creates an image of boys as these instinct-driven hormone machines who can’t be logical, reasonable, or intelligent. It also makes it seem acceptable for boys to actually be distracted by girls; by using it as an official explanation for dress codes, we’re effectively saying that it’s inevitable and therefore excusable (on the boys’ part).
A teacher’s perspective
Now, I’d be lying if I said that I was never felt uncomfortable with the way my female students dressed – when I started teaching, it was thongs visible above the waistband of super-low-rise jeans, and when I left it was leggings as pants and those loose, off-the-shoulder tops. There have been times when I’ve thought “what was she thinking??” and “what kind of point is she trying to make??”. The thing is, unless I asked the student herself those questions, there was no way I was ever going to know. And to be honest, it’s none of my business anyway.
So, do I think that students sometimes dress “inappropriately” for school? Yes. Do I think that dress codes are the answer? No. So what is the answer? In an ideal world, it would be that we foster an environment where girls are empowered to choose clothing that they’re comfortable in, that makes them feel confident, and that expresses whatever they’re choosing to express. Where girls don’t feel like they have to buy a particular brand of clothing to fit in, to wear a particular style to be accepted, or to show or cover a particular amount of skin to avoid judgment. Where girls feel like they can spend hours thinking about clothing and self-expression, or just throw on whatever’s there because they have more important things to think about.
But obviously, we don’t live in an ideal world. So what do you think?