By now you’ve probably heard of the prestigious New York City high school that protested what they perceive as a discriminatory dress code by instituting a “Slutty Wednesday”—a day in which students came to school in outfits that deliberately violated the code. According to news reports, the school’s dress code is pretty basic. It requires that shorts, dresses and skirts should extend below students’ fingertips, with their arms straight at their sides and that shoulders, undergarments, midriffs and lower backs should not be exposed. Students argued that such a code affects female students more than males and that it is being arbitrarily enforced, singling out students whose bodies are “more curvy.”
“In addition to the violation of female students’ rights,” Jessica Valenti writes in The Nation, “the thinking behind the code sends a dangerous message to young women – that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them.”
The protest is similar to the thinking behind movements like Slutwalk — movements that, in the words of founder Heather Jarvis, emphasize the right for “anyone to wear what you want and be who you are without the threat of violence.”
Whereas I agree that it’s not a women’s responsibility to mitigate the male gaze, and I certainly respect that a woman’s sexuality is her own to be expressed as she chooses, the sticky fact is that many spaces we encounter have a dress code, written or unwritten. To the extent that school prepares students for the “real world,” shouldn’t students be expected to come to school properly dressed?
(Here’s where I embarrass myself by using words like “proper” and “appropriate.” I know, right? Want to laugh at how old I am? The other day I saw an ad for a house party promising “Caged Animals.” I remarked to my boyfriend that this made me less interested in going to said party. Then I noticed that written above it said “Music by…” Agh!)
In high school, I was once sent home for “lack of appropriate undergarment.” At the time, I thought it was as hilarious as it was embarrassing. I hadn’t been making a political point. These days, whereas I am oft guilty for not wearing a bra, I have the wherewithal at 30+ years old to know what I’m doing. Certainly, I have the common sense to wear one when I go to work — common sense I apparently lacked when I was 14.
Valenti makes the assumption that the students at Stuyvesant are “some of the brightest out there— they want to learn and to engage with each other and the world around them. Whether or not they wear tank tops or shorts while they do so is irrelevant.”
I disagree. The administration at Stuyvesant may be bullied into making itself into a privileged bubble where its community standard is to pretend to not notice how people are dressed — and I have been a student at these sorts of schools, where everyone is all so glaringly, similarly “unique” — but personal appearance is not irrelevant, and the high school that pretends that it is graduates its students unprepared.
I must say, I feel sorry for the teachers quoted in the news coverage. Having been a school teacher myself, I know from experience that commenting on a student’s personal appearance can sometimes be awkward. There is no right way to tell a child that you can see her thong. Some might argue that high school students aren’t children. No, they aren’t. They are something in between, and that in-between should be respected, and treated tenderly, and taught. I am a firm believer that sexuality should be explored — and it will be, even by children, whether adults admit it or not — and it is precisely for this reason that overt displays of sexuality shouldn’t be ignored. “Sexy” needn’t be stigmatized, but when we’re talking about kids at school, it ought to be addressed.
What do you think of the Slutty Wednesday protest? Have you ever gotten in trouble for violating a dress code? Is there a dress code (written or unwritten) where you work or go to school?