Thursday, January 27, 2011

"School is not a runway, girls"

Most girls hear it growing up - from parents, teachers, and principals: School is not a fashion show. You're here to learn.

Yeah, if only it was that simple. The sad truth is, no matter what clothing or makeup you ban, and no matter how much you lecture girls on the fact that school is for learning, not dressing up, it's not going to do shit about the culture surrounding teenage girls and appearance.

The most popular magazine for girls tells them to look cute at school. The first half of the magazine instructs girls on how to dress, how to do their makeup, how to style their hair, and that they should do all that before getting on the school bus.

Guys expect girls to look good. Girls expect girls to look good. Most girls would feel naked and exposed without makeup, and many would feel ugly and self-conscious if they did not look good in school.

And of course this isn't good, something that needs to be changed. Ideally, how a girl looked wouldn't matter in school. In fact, one would argue that the focus on how a girl looks while in school is a huge distraction. Girls wake up earlier than they need to just so they can do their hair and makeup and pick out the right combination of clothing. Why aren't girls eating breakfast before school? Because they only have so much time to get ready in the morning, and most would rather spend that time grooming than eating.

I wasn't completely exempt from this. I went through phases where I'd wake up an extra ten or fifteen minutes each morning so I'd have time to do my makeup - other times I slept in and didn't really care how I looked at school.

The distraction is multi-faceted. The most obvious form is girls putting on makeup during school - either in the bathroom or at the locker, in which case they may risk being late for class, or in the classroom, where they focus on their face instead of what's being taught. Then there's the mental distraction, the worry that they don't look good enough, they don't measure up to the other girl - when a girl worries about how she looks, she's not absorbing the material, or taking notes, or thinking critically. This contributes to the gender inequality in education.

And then, girls who do look good in school are demonized for distracting their male classmates. The idea that attractive girls distract boys is what motivates dress codes. Dress codes are about keeping the boys focused, not the girls.

It doesn't help that in movies, the girls who are valued most by the student body are the ones who strut down the hallway, wearing high heels and toting purses instead of backpacks, often not even carrying books.

The question is, how do we tackle the issue? Policies that restrict dress and appearance don't change the cultural pressure to look good. Gender segregation only does so much, because girls don't just dress to impress boys, they also dress to impress their judgmental and competitive female peers.

Answer: the culture as a whole needs to change. If women are truly valued for their intelligence rather than their appearance, girls will focus more on their performance in the classroom than how they look walking down the hallway. But that change can't come from authority figures. As Mary Pipher said in Reviving Ophelia, adolescents tune out their adult authority figures, even their parents, and instead look to their peers and mass media for their cues on where they fit into the world. The media - magazines, TV shows, commercials, young adult literature, movies, music, etc. - becomes their guide on how to act, how to dress, and what their priorities are; and these toxic cultural values are passed among adolescencts, and teenagers enforce these rules on each other. Parents and educators who try to intervene are ignored. The media needs to change, and it's not as simple as calling up the editors of Seventeen and the producers of Gossip Girl - the change needs to come from new media that's devoid of junk values.

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