The Soapbox: School Dress Codes Are Vehicles For Body-Shaming And It’s Time To Do Something About It

Remember school dress codes? Did they ever give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach as a teenager, or did they stay comfortably off your radar? Peggy Orenstein’s opinion piece on the subject in The New York Times brings up some of the more troubling questions about what the real purpose of those rules is –do they protect kids or just perpetuate body shame?

Orenstein insists that:

Telling girls to “cover up” just as puberty hits teaches them that their bodies are inappropriate, dangerous, violable, subject to constant scrutiny and judgment, including by the adults they trust. Nor does it help them understand the culture’s role in their wardrobe choices.

I’d venture that just about all of us have memories from our childhoods that proves exactly that. These days, I’m pretty comfortable in my body, but that wasn’t so until I’d spent years away from the dress codes that once dictated my childhood experiences. Whether they were school-mandated or unspoken rules about how women were expected to carry themselves, they were never far away. In my first memory of feeling embarrassed by my body, I was around 9 or 10, in a car on the highway, and a well-meaning relative was trying to find the most tactful way to tell me that I needed a halter bra to go with the summer top I was wearing. My face felt hot and I wanted to melt into the car’s seat. Conversations like that one set the tone for the whole rest of that summer, and if I’m being honest with myself, for the next several years after that. Over time, as grade school turned to middle school, I would get ready for the day feeling pretty good about the way I looked — until I was told by a grown-up on my way out the door to cover up my chest or pull down my skirt. Long June walks to the coffee shop with friends were a daily internal debate over whether I’d rather overheat in long-sleeved shirts or wear a tank top that seemed to come along with a “critique my body” sign on my forehead.

When high school started, I wised up to the fact that even the most conservative clothes couldn’t hide my curvy figure and began to feel more entitled in what I chose to wear. Unfortunately, that was around the same time Miss J* came into the lives of my classmates and I. Both a beloved and maligned figure, Miss J was something of a more powerful version of a hall monitor. She wandered around our high school looking for kids breaking the rules and exacted her “tough love” brand of discipline, which secretly terrified us.

Every day, Miss J reprimanded the girls at school. She would stop students in the hall and ask them to extend their arms to their sides in accordance with the dress code’s rules. If a girl’s skirt didn’t hit as far down her legs as her middle fingers did, she was promptly sent to the lost and found where she was expected to pick out a pair of someone else’s old sweatpants to wear for the rest of the day. Girls who were punished by Miss J became the main subject of gossip for the rest of the week, and as awful as it sounds, I think it made the rest of us insecure teenage girls feel better about ourselves to see the most beautiful among us essentially endure punishment for looking good in what they were wearing. A girl who wore a short skirt to school would be praised by her peers for how “hot” she looked, but the second she was called out by Miss J, she became a slut who was too full of herself.

To get to my choir class, I had to walk past the school’s central office, which Miss J sat across from as she watched the foot traffic between classes. On warm days, my friends and I would hold our breath as we passed, trying to blend into the crowd and hoping she wouldn’t call us over to her to examine our outfits. I went to an otherwise great high school, and the dress code didn’t ruin my life, but it certainly didn’t make coming to terms with my body any easier.

The question, to me, is where the balance lies between body-shaming and making kids’ lives easier. When a 12-year-old girl puts on a miniskirt in the morning, she may not consider — like an adult might — that it could be impossible for her to comfortably sit down, bend over or run for the rest of the day. Kids are entitled to functionality at school, even if they have to be told by an adult to make it happen.

As Orenstein notes, one of the biggest arguments in favor of school dress codes is that they prevent teenage boys from being “distracted,” which is total bullshit. The only time boys start to think they can’t control themselves around bare arms is when grown-ups tell them they can’t control themselves around bare arms, and all this notion does is perpetuate a victim-blaming culture. I know there are dangerous, misogynistic creeps in the world who are looking for any chance they can to take advantage of vulnerable teenage girls on their walk to school, but something tells me a girl’s outfit choice will do little to change that. I understand that young girls aren’t as aware of what different clothing means in society the way an adult might, but they’re still entitled to choose whatever clothing they want. If what she’s wearing is harmful to her, it’s on her parents to let her know.

As Orenstein puts it:

…While women are not responsible for male misbehavior, and while no amount of dress (or undress) will avert catcalls, cultural change can be glacial, and I have a child trying to wend her way safely through our city streets right now. I don’t want to her to feel shame in her soon-to-be-emerging woman’s body, but I also don’t want her to be a target.

As dark as it sounds, I don’t think the short-term goal of keeping girls safely away from certain clothes until they are grown-ass adults who can pick our their own outfits make a difference in preventing of rapists and sexual harassers. Predators don’t take a day off just because all of their potential victims are wearing sweatpants. Dress codes’ lasting implication that female bodies are dirty and should be covered up does way more long-term damage than attempting to ward off abusers who should be taught not to harm others in the first place.

When I was growing up, I knew exactly what stranger danger was and how to handle it, but what I didn’t have a name for was the humiliation and guilt I felt for simply inhabiting my body in public. It took me years to discover that what I felt was shame, and that it was placed upon me by deep-rooted societal traditions that have yet to budge. Did young boys feel this way too? I’ll never know, but what I do know is that there has to be a better way to create dress codes that favor functional clothes rather than avoiding “distractions,” because our girls deserve better than that, and because the length of a teenager’s skirt has absolutely nothing to do with her worth.

[New York Times]