In high schools and middle schools across the United States, we have seen a prolific enforcement of dress codes hell-bent on restricting what girls and boys wear around school. These restrictions are limiting for and more heavily enforced on girls in comparison with boys, however.
In fact, much of the actualenforcement is aimed almost exclusively at girls’ attire. If you look at the dress code as stated in a high school or middle school student handbook, often very few restrictions are specific to boys; most can be generalized and applicable to both boys and girls (e.g. no baggy pants, offensive t-shirts, unkempt hair, visible underwear).
The rest of the restrictions in these dress codes are more thoroughly specified to the clothes girls wear: no bare stomachs or backs, no spaghetti straps, shorts that are at least fingertip-length, no plunging necklines (revealing cleavage) and no tight fitting clothing such as leggings. We begin to see a pattern. Under the guise of a dress code, the average American high school is adamant about controlling the visibility of girls’ skin and figures.
But why is that? Pants with holes, a tank top with a profane image, and bedhead surely look unbecoming on anyone in the school’s halls. But a pair of shorts and a polo shirt – what the average well-dressed boy might wear in summer – is acceptable and fashionable.
A short lace skirt or a backless summer dress – what an average, well-dressed girl might wear in the summer – are not homely, disheveled attire; they, too, are designed to look fashionable. Yet under a school dress code they are banned material. To understand why this double standard exists, we have to ask where it comes from in the first place. By doing so, we can understand the damage it is doing to girls who will in turn become women.
So why are “revealing” outfits on girls so taboo in the halls of schools?
Why are girls being shamed for it?
In most cases where girls are sent to the office to change clothes (or sent to “in-school suspension”) for their dress code violations, the most common reason given why their clothes are wrong is that their clothes are distracting. The concern is that when a girl reveals skin or a part of the body that is not normally seen in school, boys will become distracted by it. When we break that down, we reveal what can be seen as an implicit course of action that places unchecked male libido above female prerogative. What this does, in essence, is silence entitlement by ignoring it.
What is entitlement in this case? In a perfect world, if a girl wants to wear short shorts or a shoulderless top in school, she should be able to do so. If a boy wants to wear short shorts or a shoulderless top in school, he should be able to do so. But we do not expect the latter case; because of our society’s gender roles (a whole new topic for a whole new article), it is far less likely that a boy will walk into school wearing such an outfit, so it is not explicitly enforced.
However, we would expect a girl to wear such an outfit; you see it all the time outside of school. Both girls and boys should be entitled to wear this otherwise appropriate outfit, but one of the many reasons why it is not allowed in middle schools and high schools – a population of 11 to 18 year olds – is because of the extent to which our society has sexualized the female body.
The internet, television, magazines, movies, video games and pornography alike have strongly contributed to the over-sexualized image of a woman showing more skin than the modest outfit would normally reveal. Because these mediums are so prominent in American society, they easily permeate and influence our attitudes, policies and beliefs. The true damage starts when we allow these portrayals of women to act according to a set standard, with distinct lines between “well-behaved” and “promiscuous“, and by allowing ourselves to believe these two terms are mutually exclusive.
This is where the term “slut” comes from; the word has become a potent weapon (used primarily by women, against women) to shame women for “acting out” relative to this superficial standard.
One of the reasons why high schools and middle schools feel it necessary to police the length, thickness, and coverage of girls’ clothing more so than boys’ clothing is because the act of showing skin, showing cleavage or accentuating one’s figure has been erroneously associated with sexual promiscuity.
Of course, sometimes such behavior does occur with the intent of being sexually promiscuous, but only when a similar sexual reaction is being sought. We will shame girls for wearing such clothing, for acting “promiscuous,” for the reason that boys may act upon their sexual impulses at seeing cleavage, or a little more thigh skin than they are used to seeing. Enforcing these policies is damaging the confidence, identity and individuality of girls, because it is quietly perpetuating their objectification. Worse still is our inability to recognize that the problem of girls’ dress code violations can not ultimately be solved by changing what girls wear, but by teaching boys to control their impulses and attitudes towards girls.
We all know that objectifying women is a form of sexism, but it is much harder to call policing girls’ clothes in school sexist. Dress codes are not, in fact, a form of oppression, but rather a fair system of control that (should) benefit the image of the school that creates the dress code.
Appropriate dress implies proper conduct, and proper conduct can be conducive to a productive learning environment. However, the controversy in the way dress codes are enforced arises not from what schools deem appropriate, but from what they categorize as inappropriate.
Luckily, girls do not remain silent on the issue. Many students are aware that dress codes are unfairly targeting girls, and that the basis for constructing these dress codes needs to be challenged. To do that, we’re going to have to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. But these questions – about how we view boys and girls so differently, and why we allow ourselves to over-sexualize girls – will bring us closer to ending the quiet sexism that is dictating the attitudes and policies of our school systems.