At just 12 years old, I rushed through the crowded hallways of my middle school. I squeezed past my classmates while holding my books to my chest, trying desperately to hide my shirt from any faculty, avoiding eye contact to the best of my ability. I felt shamed and confused about the outfit that I had been so excited to wear that day.
That morning I had put on my new lime green V-neck. On the way to my first period class, I confidently walked through the halls greeting friends. But when I got to the doorway of my first class, my teacher’s welcoming smile quickly fell as she glanced at my chest. She told me my T-shirt was too revealing and that I would have to change.
Humiliated, I clutched my books to my chest and ran to the bathroom to put on my gym clothes. I went back to class and sat down next to a classmate, a boy, who was wearing a V-neck T-shirt.
I had never thought of myself as scandalous. I wasn’t even a teenager yet; I hadn’t even gone through puberty. From that day forward, I was constantly worried about what other people thought of me. I figured if the school administration, full of educated adults, thought my clothing was inappropriate, they must be right. It was my fault. I was a distraction.
After I moved school districts, my new school surprised me with its relaxed dress code policy. The change from not being able to wear leggings or running shorts in class to having virtually no rules was liberating. I felt free to be myself and less like a prisoner of the school system. It completely changed my outlook and attitude toward education.
I almost forgot about my
humiliating middle school
experience, until recently. Lately, there have been a number of situations similar to mine buzzing through social media. Young girls getting in trouble for exposing as little as their collarbone or shoulder. In our country, female students are much more likely to have a long list of rules to follow and clothing items they can’t wear, while male students have next to no restrictions. Yes, appropriate attire needs to be monitored in a school setting, but more often than not these rules are invasive and ridiculous.
The justification for dress code restrictions usually boils down to bare skin being a distraction to male students. If school administrators believe teenage boys will be unable to focus on their work if the girl sitting next to them is wearing a tank top, then how will they be able to function in the real world?
Such absurd dress codes
hinder both female and male
students. They teach girls that it is their fault if a man can’t control himself or his actions. It teaches boys that it’s okay to degrade and blame women. From an early age it creates an expectation and stigma that women do everything to please someone else – whether it be the administration, society, or a man.
In order to fix this problem, school dress codes need to be revamped nationwide, starting with elementary and middle schools. We are naturally drawn to what “isn’t allowed”; if we permit a reasonable amount of skin to show, boys will be less “distracted” because they won’t be looking for it. We shouldn’t teach girls that they have to dress to please someone else or fit into a standard. If they have the autonomy to choose their own clothing, they will grow up confident in themselves and their decisions.
The only way the reconstruction of dress codes will be effective is if we start changing the way our society thinks.
People often don’t believe that dress codes have any lasting affect on the mentality of the youth. They’re just kids right? Wrong. Imagine a society where women are seen as objects. Imagine a place where a man’s actions are blamed on a woman’s appearance. Imagine a world where your daughter, sister, and friends are sl**-shamed. The sad thing is you don’t have to. We are living in that world, and we are teaching children that this is okay; this is “just how it is,” but it doesn’t have to be.
If I could tell my 12-year-old self anything, it would be “You are not the problem.” The main thing I remember feeling is that I didn’t know what I did wrong. Countless girls across America and the world feel the same way. If society can’t see that this is
a problem, then society is the problem.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.