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Dress Codes and their Underlying Messages
Award winning writer and feminist, Amanda Marcotte, declared “telling women to cover up is just as surely a form of sexual objectification as telling women to take it off. Either way, you're reducing a woman to her sexuality instead of considering her as a whole person,” (Marcotte). Marcotte’s feminist statement rang with clarity- society’s misguided belief that telling women not to show their bodies will help them avoid sexual objectification by others is actually objectification in itself. But yet, schools across the country are doing just that. Dress codes are implemented restricting how much skin a woman can show and punishing students if they violate these standards of body image. While rules have their place in any institution, it is essential to peel back the layers of these standards and assess them at their core. What are dress codes really telling women and is it harmful or beneficial?
To truly understand these questions, it must first be understood what the role of a school dress code is. Many schools claim in their student handbooks that their main purpose for instituting these rules is a combination of promoting an effective learning environment and avoiding distractions, ensuring safety, preparing students for real-life situations, and promoting positive self-image and self-respect amongst students. These seemingly wholesome aims, however, are being pursued through restrictions on how long shorts can be, how much of a girl’s shoulder can be visible, how low a shirt can fall, or how tight pants are allowed to be. However, the flawed connections between the goals and the methods tend to send unhealthy messages to women.
One of these messages may be that women have to cater to men. An effective learning environment without distractions is obviously important in a school- seeing as the main purpose of a school is to enable its students to learn. However, many schools argue that a provocative outfit on a female could become a potential distraction for male students. For instance, in April of 2013 a California middle school banned girls from wearing pants that are “too tight” because it, “distracts the boys”. In situations like this, the girl is forced to accept blame for possibly distracting a male student and even required to endure punishment, such as detention or being forced to don a pair of the school’s sweatpants, a modern day institutionalized “scarlet letter” and source of public humiliation. Rather than teach males to view female bodies differently, we actively support the sexualizing of bodies, and better yet, any skin above three inches above the knees. This philosophy is detrimental to both genders, depicting females as objects whose respectability is determined by their clothing and portraying males as having no restraint. Our education system may be planting a seed of destructive gender roles and reinforcing the patriarchy. However, where much of the controversy lies is in whether or not this is simply a necessary side effect of maintaining a focused and undistracted classroom environment.
Tara Culp-Ressler offered her opinions on the topic. As the Health Editor for ThinkProgress.com, author of articles on dress codes and slut shaming, and a women’s rights activist, she had useful thoughts on the topic of dress codes. Ms. Culp-Ressler shared, “I think schools are often trying to do the right thing. Administrators want to make sure that school is a productive environment that promotes learning, and they don’t want students to be distracted from the task at hand. I am sympathetic to that. Unfortunately, that mission often ends up sending students some potentially harmful messages by teaching them that girls’ clothing is distracting and boys can’t control themselves.” She explains the effect of this attitude on young men and women, “They [parents and teachers] may not realize that 12 different rules aimed at girls’ necklines and hemlines, versus just a handful of rules for boys’ clothing, sends a very clear message to kids. But ultimately, it’s teaching students that girls’ bodies are inherently sexual, and boys aren’t capable of respecting girls because of that. It teaches girls that it’s their job to cover up and protect themselves from being ogled. And it teaches boys that they don’t have any responsibility to treat girls as people, instead of as sex objects. These attitudes run throughout our society, and dress codes help reinforce them beginning at a young age.”
Annie-Rose Strasser, senior editor of ThinkProgress, author of articles on dress codes and slut shaming, and feminist, also provided her opinions on dress codes and their covert messages. She responded with an insightful anecdote about her experience as a teenager. She recounts, “It’s very hard to be a girl in puberty, trying to find clothes that fit. I remember shopping with my mom and only being able to find these horribly, uncomfortable low-rise pants that left a huge hap between my pants and shirt. And I was mortified, but it was the only thing I could find. My body was going through changes. It was hard to figure out how to wear what the other girls wore and fit in, but also get clothes that actually fit. Now, take all that stress and emotion, and add to it teachers telling you that you’re dressing wrong and distracting boys from doing their work. It’s horrifying! It’s upsetting!” She continues, “That’s made even worse by the fact that it reduces boys to these craven little things that have no regard for women. I don’t think that’s actually true. I think most boys know that they shouldn’t be staring at girls’ bodies and should instead be looking at the board. But the few who do it anyway, they’re getting a free pass. They’re being told, ‘Oh, it’s not your fault for looking, it’s their fault for making you look’. It’s an unhealthy dynamic for everyone.”
On another hand, in some instances, it seems that even the purpose of dress codes is forgotten and replaced with some other ulterior motive. On May 1st of last year, a kindergarten student was forced to change her outfit because her skirt violated the dress code. The assistant principal reported the outfit as “inappropriate and a distraction to other students” (Fox). The young girl’s mother, Audrey Hightower, argued, “She had tights under her skirt, so she wasn’t showing any skin. And if anything was showing under her skirt, she could have pulled it down because there were three ruffles on her skirt,” (Fox). Nonetheless, the girl was wearing a new outfit when the mother came to pick up her child at the end of the day. Despite her young age and covered skin, the young girl still received the same punishment. Yet the question of who this girl could possibly be distracting by wearing an ordinary black skirt and opaque white tights is still left unanswered. Reinforcing female objectification for the sake of avoiding distractions might be justifiable to some, but in cases like this, significant questions seem to hover inevitably nearby, leaving people wondering what the real reason for objectifying women is when their attire doesn’t even create a distraction. Yet, other aspects of dress codes’ covert messages are equally concerning.
Additionally, school dress codes indirectly tell women that objectification is simply that they have to get used to. Many schools claim that their dress code prepares students for the “real world”. While in professional circles, workers may be required to don business attire that covers up most of their body, the main things to remember are that 1.) They are representing a larger organization and willingly sacrificing their autonomy to represent the unified “image” of that group and that 2.) School is mandatory and represents a conglomerate of individuals trying to discover their own unique identity. Aside from the professional setting, the real world is the same kind of diverse group. But more importantly, preparation does not necessarily call for mimicking, especially when the “real world” is not representative of the “moral and ideal world”. In other words, just because that may be the way that the world is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. This is encouraging complacency and discouraging social action. However, is it the schools place to mimic the real world and act as its microcosm regardless of morality, or is it the school’s role to prepare students by being fair and just? Since females will be judged and punished by their provocativeness of their clothing and objectified by others in the “real world”, does that make it okay for schools to do the same in their classrooms?
Ms. Culp-Ressler responded to these inquiries. “I do think it’s the school’s place to think critically about how dress codes affect both girls and boys. Schools are really important environments that help mold young people into the adults they are going to be. I think it’s important to think about school policies from all angles and try to figure out whether they’re sending harmful or helpful messages.”
Ms. Strasser shared her thoughts on schools’ responsibility to consider the effects of dress codes. She expresses, “Dress codes that focus on lessening the ‘distraction’ that girls have on boys have already made the choice that they prioritize boys’ needs over girls’. So, I think the status quo in a lot of cases is unfair. Schools deal with all kinds of emotional and developmental needs for their students, and I think making dress codes fair and non-gendered definitely fits into that.”
Another common purpose of a dress code is to promote positive self-image and self-respect. Middle school teacher Jessica Lahey shares in an article for Slate.com, “I work hard to let my girls know that I respect them for their brains and character- regardless of whether they put their cleavage or the length of their legs on display,” (Lahey). It’s a noble goal, but she then goes on to claim that restricting and controlling girls’ bodies will teach women to have more self-respect. In reality, however, Lahey is endorsing the popular practice of teaching women to self-objectify and obsess over their appearance- both of which are known to lead to eating disorders, low self-worth, and depression (Valenti). Females are forced to objectify themselves and assess their body by the standards of society: “Does this make me appear “slutty”? Does this make me look like I don’t respect myself?” In the words of Amanda Marcotte, “Dress codes don’t teach girls self-respect, but respecting girls could” (Marcotte). If one doesn’t want females to be judged by what they wear, and rather the intelligence and character that they possess, perhaps the best way to achieve that goal would be by not focusing on what females are wearing, and instead on the said character and intelligence. By claiming the instilment of “self-respect” for females as a purpose for school dress codes, schools tell females that they can only be respected as multifaceted human beings when they cover up their natural, but over-sexualized bodies.
It is crucial to analyze the underlying messages of school dress codes. These are the rules and regulations that children are raised on and taught not to question, making it all the more important that they don’t contain harmful messages or negative side effects. While the need for a “line to be drawn” somewhere may be valid in our school system, it is just as important to consider not only the “line” but the reason behind the line and what the line symbolizes- for the students and others- and how that meaning will affect their thoughts and attitudes for the rest of their lives. So now it’s your turn to pose these questions on yourself: Do you believe there are covert messages in school dress codes and are they harming the young women of our society?