THE BLOG

Dress Codes or How Schools Skirt Around Sexism and Homophobia

02/19/2013 03:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

Spring is coming, which means we are entering the season of the regulation of how much skin girls around the country are allowed to bare. Dress codes, while usually regulating boys' slovenliness, tend to police girls for how much of their bodies are visible. Anyone who's ever painted or stood in a room surrounded by Kara Walker silhouettes can tell you that white space is defining and when we talk about dress codes, girls' skin is the white space we've all been trained to ignore in these discussions. And, while everyone is in theory affected by dress codes, girls and LGTBQ youth are disproportionately affected by them. Challenging schools to align unexamined, traditional dress codes to contemporary values is a tangible place to start if you're interested in teaching kids to live in a diverse, tolerant society. Of course, many parents are not interested.

When it comes to girls, skimpy and skin-baring clothes are often the primary issue. Kids know that many words, like "unladylike," are code for "slutty." Other words that are frequently used include "distracting" and "unprofessional." Many teachers worry that girls' skin will "so addle boys' brains that they will be unable to concentrate." Boys, and apparently in Iowa, adult men who can now legally fire "irresistible" women, we are told, simply cannot concentrate in this environment.

So, what exactly is wrong with saying girls are "distracting"? I mean, everyone know this, right?

  • Who gets to be distracted? And, whose distraction is central? What is a girl supposed to think in the morning when she wakes up and tries to decide what to wear to school? They aren't idiots. The logical conclusion of the "distracting" issue is, "Will I turn someone on if I wear this?" Now who is doing the sexualizing? My daughters would never have thought these things without the help of their school. The only people these policies worry about distracting are heterosexual boys. When I was a teenager, there was a boy who distracted the hell out of me. It was the way his hair brushed against his neck and an insouciant ease with his large body. I managed just fine academically, and so can straight boys who encounter girls they are attracted to. When have you ever heard someone talk about what is distracting to girls or gay kids? This idea ignores that fact that girls and LBGTQ kids exist as sexual people. But, do you know what is distracting? Trying not to be distracting. This framing of the problem is marginalizing, sexist and heteronormative.
  • In addition, it implies strongly that girls have responsibility for boys' responses and that boys cannot control themselves. Boys should be insulted. People need to get a super-firm grip on the fact that girls are not sexual thermostats for their male peers. They need to manage themselves and are fully capable of doing so.
  • Third, if people are concerned that girls consider themselves decorative or that they think that appearing in what can be construed as sexually provocative ways is important, then they should confront the reasons why girls perceive these things to be true by the time they are 10 or 11. The clothes that our culture makes available and fashionable for girls -- the ones tied to being attractive, to glamour, success, money and public female power and glory -- are the same ones that make it possible for most girls and women to access power and resources vicariously in male-dominated culture. THAT is what schools should be concerned with. Blaming girls for making rational choices about what society rewards them for is useless and hypocritical.

This isn't to say girls should go to school wearing anything that strikes their fancy, no matter how skimpy. When their underwear is showing it's not because they're channelling Jean Paul Gaultier in an attempt to show how artificial the construction of gender is. There are times when girls reach an age when being sexy or sexual is just fine, but In the same way that they shouldn't wear athletic clothes to go to a wedding, they shouldn't wear clothes they'd wear, say, to a concert, when they go to school. I want my girls to be comfortable at school and respectful of their teachers and the learning environment. Boys, too. If this means, as girls occasionally suggest to teachers, that a school talk to boys about not looking at girls' legs if it makes them uncomfortable, then so be it. With uniforms, it should be even simpler.  The issue isn't the rules per se, it's how they're constructed.

Equally important is how they are enforced. This is of much more concern and frequently sets harmful precedents.

Some administrators start every school day with rigorous visual inspections as kids tumble onto campuses. These inspections don't exist in a vacuum. No one is suggesting that teachers are like street harassers. But, inspections begin around the same time that young girls start experiencing daily street harassment and sexual harassment on campus. In school, boys, like girls, are targets of public humiliation but, especially if they are straight, this type of public inspection and commentary on their bodies and clothes is usually limited to school. For girls and many LGBTQ people, this is just the beginning and it never ends. They have to deal with related feelings amplified by administrators who feel strongly about enforcement. On the recent afternoon of the day that my girls' school reviewed uniform policies, a gaggle of 13-year-old girls (in regulation uniforms) piled into my car as two men on the street leered, mumbled "compliments" at them and laughed. I didn't mention it, but realized the girls heard them as they started talking about how "creepy" it was. One made an automatic and unself-conscious connection: She said she did not like being inspected in school and it felt the same way to her. It's hard to know, in this context, who a girl is talking about when she says she's "uncomfortable when he winks" at me. I know it seems ridiculous to compare thoughtful, often loving teachers -- of both sexes -- with random jerks on the street, but that is true only if you willfully deny the centrality of the 13-year-old girls' point of view in the matter of her own comportment. The well-documented, harmful effects of self-objectification that result from the policing of school dress regulations is not unlike those that result from street harassment. From the girls' perspective, they'd started their day with people reviewing, having conversations about and publicly commenting on their bodies and were ending it in the same manner. It's wearisome. Some might say distracting.

In addition, the way school rules are often demonstrated is seriously problematic. For example, administrators might take a girl up to a stage and draw a line on her leg, to show where a regulation length skirt should fall. This is often done with humor, to offset the unpleasantness and difficulty of the task at hand, and everyone has a good laugh. A girl with no power, being told by a bigger person with authority what to do, might be acquiescing to what is happening to her, but she is not consenting. By using her body as a prop, the enforcer uses her body as an object for his or her purposes. Making it a joke can be insidious. I know this is not what's going through a teacher's head when surrounded by pubescent students who are violating code. But, nonetheless, this is happens every day, year after years in some places, and it is a terrible precedent to set for boys and girls.

Our ideas about consent and the use of other people's bodies are important and cannot, in this culture, begin early enough. Take, for example, the fact that 28% of girls in college are sexually assaulted (and 3% of boys), only 5% report these crimes. Say a boy or group of boys rapes a girl. They have grown up with ideas about how her clothes can "distract" boys and make them do things they haven't being told or asked overtly to control. The girl also might very well have internalized ideas repeatedly conveyed to her about how people confuse her clothes for "morality," or intent, how others can use or comment on her body, how her consent is not either expected or respected. Not only has she internalized these ideas, but her school might have institutionalized them in dress code policy and enforcement. This is not helpful. According to the Center for Public Integrity, only 5% of victims report crimes either because they don't understand their nature or because they are well aware of institutional tolerances for these practices.

Girls' "right to bare arms" is an idea with a long and meaningful tail.

This topic must be one of the most difficult for school administrators, often caught between a rock and a hard place with students, parents, their personal beliefs, traditions and concerns about student safety and performance. There are many ways to consider the usefulness, purpose, intent and effects of dress codes. If school communities are genuinely worried about girls and boys then they need to examine the stereotypes that permeate their own policies -- policies that are sometimes simply palimpsests of sexism, racism and homophobia, written over time and left undisturbed for too long. When traditions are sexist and homophobic they should be abandoned. Programs that deal with root issues like cultural gender stereotypes, sexism and misogyny in media, like Miss Representation or Common Sense Media's Gender ToolKit, are a good place to start.