Monday, June 11, 2012

On Dress Codes

I'm bringing this up now because of the recent events in Brooklyn, where high school students protested a dress code that targeted young women's bodies. I've always had an opinion on dress codes. Reasonable ones are okay. For example, disallowing outfits where underwear is purposefully shown makes sense (see-through shirts, pants pulled halfway down the butt, "whale tails," and even bra straps showing is kinda tacky).To an extent, I understand private prep schools wanting students to look a certain, well, preppy way. However, when a dress code targets young women, or when the language is vague but the rules are mostly applied to female students, and the purpose is to make women less distracting, then I have a real problem.

This was a problem in middle school. Our dress code was pretty reasonable and reasonably enforced when we had a female principal. Then, when she left and we got Mr. Sanchioni, everything changed. By the time 8th grade rolled around, us girls couldn't wear tank tops, or anything strapless really (unless the straps were, I think, about an inch thick), short skirts, open toed shoes, or any outfit that showed any skin between the pants and shirt. Now, it's reasonable to ban cropped tops from a middle school, but they didn't even want outfits that showed skin when girls sat down or bent over. And while some teachers didn't care, others were extremely nitpicky and would approach girls at their lockers telling them to cover up. I was barely a teenager and I knew there was something wrong with it.

And why did we have this rule? Because bare skin was distracting to male students. I had to cover my body so the guys could learn. It had nothing to do with my well-being or my ability to learn, this wasn't about making sure young girls weren't overly sexualized, this wasn't even about imposing rules to give me the structure I needed to grow as an adolescent. This was purely about making sure the boys could learn. THAT was unfair. The message was "don't dress like a skank, the boys need to learn."

It didn't occur to them that girls were distracted too. Sometimes it was because of attractive guys, but usually because both guys and girls were being douchebags. I remember being picked on for having unplucked eyebrows, for having clothes that weren't trendy, for having skin that was oily and broken out, for my posture (people kept saying I walked with my chest thrust out, although I never did it on purpose), for my enlarged thyroid gland, for having a (real) boyfriend in Canada, for being half Canadian myself, the list goes on and on. I wonder if the principal cared about the bullying that was going on right under his nose. I also wondered if he was even aware that some girls felt the need to dumb themselves down in class, or that girls who did show their intelligence or actually tried in class were punished by their peers. Finally, it was really distracting to constantly worry if I was showing too much skin, it was distracting to be called out for showing "too much skin" when I sat down. Most of the female students were understandably outraged about the strict dress code, and not just because they wanted to look like they were "at the beach."

Unreasonably strict dress codes that target girls over boys are an unnecessary waste of energy. They distract students and teachers from the learning process by making people overly focused on clothing rather than education. Dress codes also hardly solve the larger problems that distract students from learning, such as bullying and harassment that hardly stem from girls showing their shoulders.

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