[Poster via thecatsmeow90]
Ah, dress codes. A week doesn't go by without news about sixth graders being condemned for wearing shorts or female reporters being kicked out of court rooms for going sleeveless or nursing students being told to cover up so as not to distract from the learning environment. Even though I'm already a rising junior at an art school and don't really have to worry about a specific dress code (except to look ~*~super fly~*~ of course), it’s still something I think about when I hear stories from my younger sister and her friends.
Looking back at my high school’s dress code, it's clear how sexist the rules were. Even though there was no specific reference to “female students,” the focus on cleavage, skirt lengths, and cami width was obviously gendered. Trans* girls had it even rougher; their dress code violations were for performing an “act that shocks social conscience,” or in other words, wearing skirts or dresses (exact phrase from the old handbook...sad, but true). Appallingly, my school’s handbook considered repeat dress code violations of the same caliber as dealing drugs, bullying, and committing arson.
One of the biggest enforcers of this policy when I was in high school was my chemistry teacher. (Hi, Ms. Esselman!) Her favorite phrase: “modest is hottest.” I think she spent more time scouting for teen cleavage than bullying or drug use. Unfortunately, I was one of those teen cleavage offenders. Above are of some of the outfits that got me in trouble. It wasn’t always intentional, though; as a girl who, um, filled out at a pretty early age, sometimes the most basic boatneck t-shirt became slutty.
Throughout my time in high school I was forced to swap my shorts for sweatpants from the lost-and-found box, wear a sweatshirt to cover my shoulders and cleavage on a hot day, and adjust my bra straps so they weren’t showing. It was incredibly humiliating to be called out for dress code, particularly because it demonstrated that your teachers were looking at you “that way,” and so each day I crossed my fingers before class that I would go unnoticed. Kind of hard when you’re trying to actively participate in the classroom, though.
Speaking up is an important way to be involved, demonstrate that you’re smart, and interact with the class material, but it’s also a good way for a teacher to notice that you’re wearing shorts because of the 90 degree weather outside. A lot of women in my class were forced to choose between speaking up in class and being called out for “immodest dress” or staying silent and potentially avoiding reprimand. Many people may wonder, “So why not fully cover yourself and avoid getting in trouble?” Well, we could always wear burqas, but then our scandalous ankles might show!
But here's the real issue with this line of thinking: It forces women to address a situation they are not in control of–namely, the way other people perceive and interact with their bodies–instead of addressing the origin of the issue itself. Female bodies are neither inherently sexual nor exist for guys to look at, exposed shoulders do not warrant disrespect, and the female body is not shameful.
Fortunately for my harlot self’s sake, Ms. Esselman took it easier on me once I finally wedged my way into her heart. I worked hard in class and stayed afterward to ask questions and participated often despite the threat of being sent to the office to change. Instead of shouting at me like she did with most of the other young women in the class, she just made a very excessive gesture at me to cover up. Still incredibly awkward, but much more bearable. She never learned that what she was doing was sexist, though; I think she allowed herself to see me as a person rather than as a sexual object, which made it easier to interact with me like like a human being. Some might think that was an improvement, but it still didn’t alter the current system in place.
There has been more backlash against school dress codes recently, but most schools aren't interested in altering their policies anytime soon. Going back to visit old teachers is still stressful. As I walk through my old halls, occasionally I’ll get a questioning up-and-down glance from an administrator, and I’ll attempt to telepathically convey, “Hello, yes, I am a grown-ass woman and no longer attend this school. Please do not stop me because I am having none of it.”
Think your dress code might be sexist? Here's a handy dandy guide to help you out.
Moriah is a student at RISD and a summer intern at Trixie Films. You can read more about her here.