THE BLOG

Stop Policing Women's Bodies

05/26/2015 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

Just about every day, my Facebook feed includes numerous articles about girls' "inappropriate" prom dresses or a high school student suspended for wearing a dress that exposed her knees. A school even sent home an invitation to a sixth grade pool party requiring girls to wear "non-white tee shirts" over swim attire.

At my daughter's high school last year, a robocall during a heatwave warned girls not to "wear clothes that would distract male students and teachers."

Any discussion about dress codes includes defenders who mention office apparel and "back in my day." I'd agree that there's a time and place for beach attire. When I was in elementary school, girls were only allowed to wear "slacks" on PE days -- and never jeans. I wear pantyhose to funerals and remember the days when air travel required men to wear a sports coat and women, a dress.

Though many office environments, especially tech start-ups, no longer require suits and ties or the equivalent for women, there is a certain level of decorum where flip-flops and concert tee shirts are not appropriate.

What disturbs me about this trend to style-shame girls is the reasoning behind the rules. We're propagating the idea that we need to police women's bodies to avoid tempting the male of our species, who are presumed to have no self-control when faced with a pretty girl in a sundress.

Hiding women's bodies is hardly a new idea. Find me a fundamentalist or "orthodox" variation of any religion that doesn't include a burka, a wig or a ban on bare arms or legs -- especially for married women.

Many Muslim women wear hijab and burkas from the age of puberty. The Tznuit laws of Orthodox Jews present modesty laws prohibiting the baring of elbows, knees and even the wearing of open-toed shoes. Both men and women are supposed to stick with "demure colors" and married women cover their hair with a wig or head covering. Pentacostal and Evangelical Christians, as well as Mormons, Quakers and Amish, all have dress codes. Biblical verse admonishes women for wearing "pearls or gold, adorning their hair, or wearing expensive clothing."

The reasoning behind many of these laws has to do with not attracting attention to oneself or one's body, the body being seen as a source of shame. The story of Adam and Eve, post-Eve's interlude with the serpent and the apple, tells of the pair's awareness and embarrassment for their nakedness, which they had previously not noticed.

The more contemporary piece of this is the widely-held belief that we women and girls must protect ourselves from the leering eyes of men and boys who are presumed to be these wild creatures unable to control their lusty ways.

And that's why the push to restrict what girls and women wear is so disturbing. We aren't telling girls to wear a hijab at the prom, but we are sending the clear message that a backless gown may entice the adult male escorts. Girls may not show their knees in math class, because that might distract the male students.

The idea that women are the protectors of "virtue" and "chastity" is the basis of the rape culture. If a girl is sexually assaulted, we ask why she was at a party, walking home from class unescorted or wearing "that dress."

Surely, we need to teach boys and girls to be responsible for their own safety, but that will never excuse the actions of their assailants. Hiding our elbows or knees or whatever other body parts are deemed shameful isn't the sartorial equivalent of pepper spray.

We can teach our children there's a time and place for cocktail or beach attire without shaming girls for their bodies. And we need to teach and show boys that a girl's attire or presence at a party doesn't mean she's fair game.