Society Magazine

Why Sexist Dress Codes Have Got To Go

Posted on the 20 May 2015 by Juliez
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Stop policing my body.

Shopping for school clothes was a nightmare in high school. Attending a private Christian school with a strict dress code, I had a lot of rules to follow: No jeans, sweat pants, yoga pants, or anything tight, revealing, or body forming. Basically nothing that was in style or readily available in stores.

Yet despite following the dress code to the best of my ability, I was still told that my pants were too tight, my shirt too low, or my skirt too short. I vividly remember being taken aside one day on the way to chapel to kneel down and have my skirt measured with a ruler. It was humiliating. I was told my favorite Old Navy skirt was a quarter of an inch too short, so I wasn’t allowed to wear it anymore.

Summer camp meant more agony. Biased rules kept me from wearing many of my summer clothes. Similar to one school where sixth-grade girls were told not to wear leggings because they might lead to boys touching their bums, my camp banned us from wearing tank tops or shorts with writing on the butt because it would distract or tempt the boys. Yet I repeatedly saw boys both at school and at camp taking their shirts off on a hot day in gym class.

What did this teach me? I had to dress my body based on how men would react to it. Men wouldn’t be able to control themselves if I wore short shorts or a tank top to class, I was taught. Women’s bodies must be covered up, but boys’ bodies don’t. I was taught to police my body and view it as an object of male desire. I was taught that my body was inappropriate, sexualized, and not my own.

This is not a new issue. Body policing in the form of dress codes has been around for a long time, and schools like my high school have tried to make students conform to their ideas of what is appropriate and modest. For years girls have complied and simply dressed as they were told, and I was no exception.

But girls are starting to speak out, demanding to be seen as more than a distraction and put an end to body shaming. There have been many stories in the news recently of girls who have been punished for violating dress code rules. Plenty of teens are pushing back on dress codes related to Prom, for example, but also against everyday dress codes. In one case in Orange County, Texas, a high school senior was sent home for wearing tight exercise pants and an over-sized shirt (a current trend) that completely covered her bum. Outraged by the incident, her sister took to Facebook, and wrote a post that perfectly captured the harmful nature of unfair dress codes that sexualize young women and girls.

In response to girls speaking out, some schools are now choosing to educate students, parents, and staff about the sexualization of girls (and boys), and are actively creating less biased dress codes. While these schools are few and far between, I am encouraged by them and am hopeful that somewhere down the road girls won’t feel the need to cover themselves up to avoid distracting boys. Instead, they will have the agency and freedom to dress however they want.

The messages schools send to their students through dress codes can have lasting effects. I’ve found that since I learned to police my body at a young age, it has become a detrimental habit. When I first got to college I was amazed that I could wear virtually anything I wanted to class, but I still found myself putting back the shirt that was a little low cut. I didn’t feel comfortable in my body, and regularly looked in the mirror to ask myself if I was dressed “appropriately.” Even going out at night, I felt like I couldn’t dress as freely as my friends because I might give men the wrong impression about me. I often felt that I would be judged for what I wore, which led to insecurities.

It’s been a long road, but I’m in the process of learning that what I wear doesn’t define me and that my body is mine to dress. I don’t have to choose my outfit based on the approval of others and I don’t have to worry if my outfit will distract men. Girls and women are more than their bodies, and we need to start teaching that to everybody — boys and girls alike.

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