During the course of the summer, as a frequent Twitter user, I read innumerable posts on girls and women, what they wear, what it means, and what it ought to mean. A number of websites specifically questioned school dress codes, claiming they were belittling to girls - and, for that matter, boys - in the assumptions underlying restrictions on clothing for girls. Those assumptions might include the motivations of girls for making certain choices, the reactions of boys to those choices, and where the responsibility lies in that interplay. Culture plays a role in those assumptions, of course, but in general the majority of people in our society tend to associate revealing clothing with deliberate sexualization, assume that boys will be distracted in those cases, and ascribe responsibility to girls for their original clothing choices.
There's no question that the sexualization of young girls is a legitimate issue in our society. For one thing, society in general and the media in particular (see Teen Vogue for example) relentlessly focus teenage girls on how they look, to the point that (as we discussed in the 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class) girls often, horrifyingly, envision themselves not from within but rather from a third-person perspective. At no point should girls buy into or otherwise accept being objectified.
That said, there are at least three potential problems with judging clothing based on the perceived degree of sexualization. One is that it makes an assumption about the intent of the wearer that may or not be true. Another is that it ascribes the right to judge girls' and women's bodies to people other than themselves. A third is the difficulty in finding a way to encourage girls not to objectify themselves without stigmatizing them in the process.
Making the assumption that boys would be distracted by what girls are wearing also carries a number of problems. First, of course, is the underlying heteronormative assumption. Not all boys are attracted to girls, and not only boys are attracted to girls. Secondly, there's the assumption that people are initially attracted to other people by their appearance; for some people, attraction is based more on personality and less on looks. Thirdly, there's the underlying assumption that people are necessarily attracted to other people; asexual people may not be a large percentage of the population, but they do exist. And fourthly, there's the untenable assumption that boys would be unable to properly set their priorities.
Even if there are boys who are distracted by what girls are wearing, the argument that it is then incumbent on the girls to wear something different is completely missing the point. It is the exact equivalent of blaming the victim. As Katie J. M. Baker succinctly put it at Jezebel (standard warning of strong images and language to those who follow any Jezebel link), "teaching teenagers that girls shouldn't wear certain clothes if they don't want to distract or tempt boys is just like telling women to avoid dressing like sluts if they don't want to be raped."
So we know some assumptions a school dress code should not be making. Yet, as some of the middle school students have said down through the years whenever our school's dress code comes up in discussion, the school is essentially their workplace. Some sort of dress code, most of them agree, makes sense. But what form should it then take?
The students who have talked to me about their ideals generally use words like "neat" and "respectful." That seems to make sense, and you see these principles reflected in the opening statement to our dress code, written by a student-faculty committee: "In general, students are expected to take pride in their appearance and be dressed for the academic day (7:55 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.) in appropriate attire that fits properly and shows a modesty befitting the class day." So far, so good. The trick is agreeing on what it means to take pride in your appearance and what it means to be dressed for the academic day.
Over the seven years since we installed this dress code, the four main bones of contention have been: height of heels, graphics on t-shirts, hoods, and the exact width of straps on tops or dresses (the current standard is three fingers). When we next revise the dress code, which may be this year as it came up in the first Student Council discussion, the people who make up that committee will need to deal with these kinds of questions, among others:
- At what point in time does a heel become so high it is medically unhealthy to wear a particular pair of shoes, and is that the appropriate standard for our school to set?
- Can and should we agree on what graphics would be considered appropriate if we were to once again allow them on t-shirts?
- Could and would it work to allow hoods as long as they are not pulled up during the academic day?
- How do we best balance the need for comfort in extremely hot and humid weather with the concept of "modesty befitting the class day"?
- And what about the concept of "modesty" in general?
More deeply, we need to look at how we support students in making clothing choices that balance the need to express their authentic selves with an awareness of how they are perceived without either shaming them or inadvertently reinforcing society's and the media's tendency to judge and to overly focus girls and women on their appearance. With careful thought and consideration, then, we should be able to come up with what might be called a feminist dress code.
That is, we should be able to do so if indeed the concepts of "feminist" and "dress code" can even co-exist, as a member of the "Toward the Stars" community pointed out this summer on Facebook.
No dress code will fully satisfy all members of any given community, of course - including the absence of a dress code. But coming to grips with the notion of a feminist dress code? That would be an achievement worth striving for.