The Sexualization of 2018
Is it just me, or does it sometimes seem like society is still a little lacking in growth? Certainly technology has advanced; we can communicate through various devices, our cars can practically drive themselves (some actually can!), and our phones can preheat the oven while we’re on our way home from work.
Yet, with all these technological advancements, how is it that in 2018 our society still teaches teenage girls that how they dress affects others’ ability to concentrate in school, and that it is the girls responsibility to change?
Lately the term “dress coded” has become a popular topic in our house as my nearly 16-year-old navigates her way through this strange world. A world where her and her girl friends are made to change their clothes throughout the school day any time a teacher feels the need to assert a power trip over their outfit. Do you remember what it was like to be 16? I do. I remember the hours spent carefully planning my outfits, trying on multiple variations of top/bottom/shoe combos. Even more hours spent on the phone, discussing clothes with friends, planning what to wear so we all matched or just “happened” to wear all black on the same day. We’d get to school and laugh loudly for everyone around us to hear, “I can’t believe we all wore black today!” “That is so funny!” “What are the chances?”
It wasn’t just our clothes that had us locked in our bedrooms planning for the following day. It was hair and make up trials after rushing to the pharmacy on the day the latest Teen Beat came out on the stands so we could see what Kelly from Saved by the Bell or Kelly from Beverly Hills 90210 were wearing. (Were all popular female television characters in the early 90s named Kelly?) We’d figure out how to do our hair like them and find pieces in our wardrobe that might make us look like them, so we could imagine that any moment Zach Morris or Dylan McKay would show up to take us out for milkshakes or a motorcycle ride. And even if the boys never showed up, at least we felt cool and like we’d accomplished something.
A few weeks ago my daughter participated in her school’s spirit week. The last day of the week was Formal Day and when my daughter came home from school she told me one of her friends was dress coded and made to put on a sweater because her dress was inappropriate. I asked what the dress looked like. “It was a beautiful, sparkly dress, that came up to her collar bone in the front, went down to her knees, and had four straps in the back – two straight down and two that were criss-crossed.”
I was puzzled. “That sounds nice. But I don’t get it…why was she dress coded for that?”
“Because her back was showing.”
Pause. I must have heard that wrong. “Her back? She was dress coded for showing her back?”
As she and I went through many scenarios in which that did not make sense, each suggestion becoming sillier than the last, “Well, it’s hard to understand math when you’re so busy being turned on by someone’s back.” an idea began to percolate. My daughter brought up the time, earlier in the year, when she was dress coded because her bra strap was showing through her long-sleeved shirt. It wasn’t low-cut, and she could not have been more covered, but the material was thinner near her shoulder area and her bra strap was moderately visible, if you looked for it really, really hard. I’m still not sure how that connects to someone else’s ability to focus on school work, but I do know that the disruption of being told to go change definitely stops my child’s focus on her studies. When I asked if any of the boys ever get dress coded for wearing the waistbands of their pants below their underwear, I was not surprised the answer was no.
I thought for a while and then suggested she and her friends plan a day when they all go to school wearing something that might be dress coded. I specified that it not be anything outrageous or that they wouldn’t wear to school on a regular basis, but something that pushed the limit just enough to get dress coded. Then I told her to have any teacher that dress codes them to contact me because I’d love to discuss this antiquated system of theirs and debate its purpose.
My daughter proposed the idea to her friends and they agreed on a day, then began to spread the word to other girls in their school. Last night I went into my daughter’s room and asked what she was wearing to school today – now known as “Dress Code Day”. She pointed to an outfit hanging on her closet door. A tank top and shorts. We talked about what she could say if she was dress coded and I reminded her to stay calm but to also not agree to change. And to not hesitate to offer to have me call the teacher if needed, rather than escalate the conversation herself; we didn’t come up with this plan to get anyone in heaps of trouble. We simply wanted to raise awareness of how often girls are dress coded, especially on a hot summer day.
This afternoon my daughter came home with a full report. She was dress coded twice, both for the same reason – her shoulders were showing. I had anticipated her being dress coded for her shorts being too short, since her middle finger (sort of appropriate if you think about it) dipped slightly below their hemline. Or maybe again because you could see a small portion of her bra strap outside the material of her tank top. At no point did I anticipate a dress code violation being handed out for too much shoulder. TWICE!
Both times my daughter took out her phone and showed the teachers the two posts each of her friends had armed themselves with to help them articulate their feelings about teachers telling them what they can or cannot wear to school. A portion of the first one reads:
Yes. Let’s think about that.
While I don’t doubt the purpose of a dress code was initially intended to make everyone comfortable, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the overall message it sends.
Of the seven items listed on the school’s dress code, five seem to only apply to female students (bra straps, mini skirts, short shorts, cleavage, crop tops). Arguably, boys could wear short shorts and crop tops as well, but let’s skip that visual for a second and focus on what this dress code is saying. The other two items on the list are underwear showing and clothing with a violent, vulgar, or drug-related reference. Interestingly, the very first code of conduct listed on the school’s website is that students have a right to be treated fairly and equitably. Yet the dress code list is more than 70% focused on female attire. I’ve never been that great at math, but I’m pretty sure a 70/30 ratio is neither fair nor equitable.
The second post my daughter and her friends showed their teachers stated:
I am sixteen. The sexualization of my body is not my problem; it’s yours. You should not be sexualizing a sixteen-year-old. You should not be teaching young girls their bodies are inherently sexual, or inappropriate. We are people, not objects. Stop policing my wardrobe. It’s warm out. I’m wearing shorts.
After discussing all the dress code issues of the day (including the accusations by some girls that it was my fault they were dress coded, because the idea came from me) I contemplated how to move forward. My daughter’s education is important to me, but I also feel that an education reaches far beyond the school walls. And while I have no desire to cause issues for her at school, these dress coded interruptions are diminishing her academic education while simultaneously attacking her sense of self.
I’m unsure if Dress Code Day made any difference in educating the teaching staff about how they unfairly judge female students or if it was just something to make these teen girls feel like they were taking back a tiny sliver of power over their own bodies and how they dress them. I’m equally unsure if I should take this up with the school’s administration or allow my daughter and her friends to fight their own battles. It’s a tricky place to be, caught between wanting to be an ally and an advocate while also encouraging kids to use their wings to fly a little farther out of the nest. I was hoping by the time I finished writing this I would have my answer, but I don’t.
In the end I think it’s important to point out these types of unnecessary injustices, which are often based on old ideas. Maybe the teachers have gotten so used to focusing on how girls dress that they’ve forgotten they are not there to police their wardrobes, but to educate them and prepare them for university.
And, the bottom line is, we all have a right to education. Even if our shoulders are exposed.