THE BLOG
05/21/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dress Coded: An Education on (Unnecessary) Sexualization

When one Illinois middle school cluelessly decided to ban leggings and yoga pants because they were "distracting to the boys," they probably didn't have any idea it would be the catalyst to a national conversation about dress codes in school.

I mean, dress codes are like, so un-controversial. Until now.

Now, all sorts of interesting stories are surfacing. Girls wearing the same regulation gym outfits, but the curvier ones are getting dress-coded. Tall girls getting dress-coded for short garments, even though they're finger-tip length, while short girls seem to not draw the same leg-bearing ire. One girl getting sent home from prom for wearing pants. Another girl was sent home from her homeschool prom because male chaperons said her dress was "causing impure thoughts" ...for the teenage boys, of course.

Story after story keeps hitting the web with what sounds like some pretty biased dress coding.

The leggings ban irked me immediately for two reasons. The first being that these girls are in middle school, which means they are 11-14. Stop making them out to be devilish little nymphets, you creepy Humbert Humberts. These girls are not wearing yoga pants/leggings to show off the prepubescent shapeliness of their backsides. One of the main reason girls -- and adult women -- wear yoga pants is because they feel like heaven compared to the alternative:

Traditionally "cute" clothing for young women is notoriously restrictive and often painful.

The following images are from IMPRESSION, a photo series that shows what women wear, by the imprints left on their skin.  Here's what form-fitting jeans look like:

 

Does that look comfortable to you? Because it looks pretty damn painful to me.

Keep in mind that loose or baggy clothing for girls is neither "popular" nor "attractive" and even borderline socially unacceptable. Professional women: would you show up to the office in a baggy pantsuit? No? Then why would these girls show up to school in baggy jeans?

Lycra and Spandex make for supremely comfortable pants. Especially when compared to form-fitting jeans that cut off the blood flow in the hips. It's not about looking "sexy." It's about comfort. To twist this innocent reason around and treat these girls as if they are temptresses is incredibly disrespectful.

The second reason the leggings ban irked me was the "reasoning" behind it.

It's "distracting to the boys."

Ugh. Every sane person on the Internet immediately called bullshit on this incredibly sexist statement. The basic and very valid counterargument:  Girls clothing is not and should not be responsible for boys' behavior.  This point has been beaten to death by now. I wanted to take this conversation in a different direction:

One.

It's yet another reminder, and reinforcement, that a girl's appearance is more important, and demands more attention, than her other, non-visible qualities. You know, qualities like intelligence, perseverance, athletic ability, tenacity, creativity, a hard work ethic... attention to those attributes seem fade away rather quickly once an inch of skin is exposed.

Instead, it teaches her to view herself in a sexualized gaze, from an outsider's point of view. At an increasingly young age, getting dressed in the morning turns from "Does teal clash with yellow?" to "Is this too much shoulder? Can someone see down this shirt? Would someone be able to look up this skirt on the stairs? What happens when I sit or bend over? I should test that."

It's not necessarily a bad way of thinking when getting dressed. But it's a pretty damn insidious sign of something ugly in our society, when middle-school girls are worrying about if someone can see down their shirts if they lean forward.

And schools, the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our kids the importance of education, teach the opposite when they pull a girl out of class because her tank top straps are only two inches wide, not the three inches regulation. It doesn't matter if she's the valedictorian working towards the Ivy Leagues. If one day her shirt rides up a bit too much (maybe it shrunk unexpectedly in the wash?), she could get sent home to change (Perfect attendance award? Who cares!).

Two.

Female bodies are not public art.
They are not for your viewing pleasure.

Or your viewing displeasure.

Schools are teaching girls, at a very, very young age, that they are on-display, and that is not ok. They're normalizing some pretty scary behaviors that women must put up with almost every day:
  • receiving unsolicited comments from complete strangers on clothes and/or appearance.
  • fielding "suggestions" from others on how dress, apply makeup, or even style hair.
  • being forced to change clothes because someone in an authority position demands it.
  • experiencing the unwanted & unnecessary sexualization of her body by older persons.
  • responding to all of the above with compliance and politeness.
Not only that, but for women, the feeling of being watched is unsettling but very common. I feel on-display when I'm waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. I feel on-display when I'm at the gym. I feel on-display at the grocery store... the list could go on. Usually it's because I see the leers, the quick up-down flick of the eyes, the possible mental-undressing (many guys have told me apparently this is a common, almost knee-jerk mental reaction, to imagine a woman's clothes off? I don't know, let me know in the comment box). It's pretty jarring to hear that some schools have become one of those places that treat girls like they are objects on display.

I think what we're hearing online is girls expressing that the strange, inconsistent enforcement of the dress codes is sexualizing them against their will. I'm pretty sure every single private school girl has been subjected to some crass "naughty school girl" joke, or unwanted attention, due to their uniforms.

It's not the girls.

It's not their uniforms.

It's the outsider's gaze sexualizing them.

Right now schools seem to be doing a really good job of teaching girls being female in public means their bodies are on display for scrutiny. And schools are doing a really bad job of teaching boys that staring is rude (to put it lightly).

Until this changes in schools, I highly doubt the more mature, serious variations of unwanted sexualization -- street harassment, sexual assault, and victim-blaming -- will ever fully disappear.

All I have to say for now is:

If you're a teenage girl in high school, it will all be over soon. You will graduate (or exit with grace), and enter the real world where nobody cares if leggings show the shape of your butt, because everybody wears leggings and everybody has butts.

And there is nothing inherently sexual with either of those things.