Girls in a Boy’s World: Dress Codes and Body Shaming in Public Schools

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By Jennifer Downey

In inland Southern California, where I live, the summer temperatures can hit as high as 112 degrees. By the time school lets out in June for summer break, it can be well over 95 degrees, and when it starts up again in August, the heat is at its smoggy, fiery peak, hovering around the triple-digits. “Smog days,” the San Bernardino Valley’s version of snow days, are declared regularly, preventing students from participating in outdoor activities.

“But it’s a dry heat!” insist the lizard people who grew up here, and they’re right, but let’s be honest—the same thing could be said about a toaster.

Having griped about the no-open-toed-shoes rule at my workplace for over a decade, I can only imagine, with a heat-induced shudder, how difficult it must be for a teenage girl to select clothing for school that meets dress code standards while somehow allowing for a modicum of comfort here at the edge of the desert.

Is there anything wrong with dress codes? They serve their purpose, don’t they? They teach teenagers what to expect about appropriate clothing choices in the grown-up world while allowing students to be creative with their clothes without resorting to uniforms. This all very true and makes perfect sense, but are school dress codes equitable across genders?

To find out, I took a look at a typical Southern California high school dress code and found myself feeling uneasy that teenage boys and girls live in different worlds regarding both their clothing and the assumptions that are made about them based on that clothing.

The students at Redlands High School, in my neighborhood, must comply with the seven rules of their official dress code. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, item #2 includes 11 bullet points, and item #7 includes two lengthy subsections regarding hats and boots, so, in truth, it’s more like 20 rules … disguised as seven.

Nobody at Redlands High School of any gender is permitted to wear clothing bearing hate speech or symbols. The same goes for clothing advocating alcohol or drugs, or any attire associated with gangs, including “identified gang attire such as bandannas, hairnets, or any gang paraphernalia.”

The dress code offers no rationalization for these rules, probably because it’s blatantly obvious why showing up at school sporting hate speech or promoting gang life isn’t the best idea. These few simple rules may be gender-neutral, but are the only ones that pertain to boys as well as girls. As far as boys go, the rules begin and end there.

Got it, boys? Don’t dress like criminals. You’re here to learn.

The same dress code does, however, offer a rationalization for prohibiting halter tops, bare midriffs, translucent tops, backless or strapless tops, visible cleavage, clothing that drapes off the shoulder, and any trace of an exposed undergarment (the undergarment in question clearly being a bra, since it’s pretty much impossible to wear your panties on your shoulders). Tops must be wide enough to fully conceal bras and their straps. Regarding below-the-waist nether regions, the policy states: “Skirts, shorts, and dresses must be long enough to reach or pass the end of the middle finger when the student’s arms are held loosely at her sides,” and if the student sits down and exposes her undergarments (meaning, I assume, either that the back of her pants puffs up into a little tent, exposing a bit of her underwear or that she’s sitting at her desk with her legs spread apart as if practicing for her first gynecological exam), she’s in violation. The stated rationalization for these particular rules is significant enough to be stated twice in the dress code, once in regular font and then again in bold type and underlined red letters: Exposing bare skin is distracting to the classroom/learning environment.

Got it, girls? Don’t dress like tramps. It distracts the boys. They’re here to learn.

The Redlands High School dress code is mild compared to those of many other schools, perhaps because of our harsh climate, or perhaps because this is California and not the South or Midwest. The story of a Kentucky girl who was sent home for wearing an outfit that showed her collarbone recently went viral, and an Illinois girl received over 2300 signatures on a petition requesting that her (lovely) senior photo, in which the tops of her shoulders are visible, not have to be retaken with her shoulders covered.

Admittedly, teenage boys do seem to be an easily excitable demographic, generally speaking. To quote a friend I’ve known since high school, “Having been a teenage boy, I can assure you that, dress code or not, teenage girls distracted us. They were on our minds even if we weren’t in the same school. Basically, everything else in our lives just existed as diversions from our thoughts about teenage girls.”

Fair enough. Teenagers of any gender tend to be a hormonally driven group, typically more curious than satisfied. But who knew teenage boys could be driven so wild with lust by the sight of a collarbone that they simply couldn’t function, let alone learn? And who knew this state of male sexual frenzy could be perceived as the fault and responsibility of girls who so brazenly flaunt their collarbones?

Well, live and learn—if you’re a boy, that is. If you’re a girl, go home and change so the boys can live and learn.

*****

Don’t you hate it when older people start stories with “Back when I was in high school?”

Too bad. Back when I was in high school, we had no dress code whatsoever, which worked out well for my beloved group of punks and misfits. We didn’t have to deal with scorching temperatures or smog days in Buffalo, but it was a daily struggle to keep warm in fishnets and torn vintage dresses loosely held together with safety pins. One of the great bragging rights of my young life was my ability to manage the mile-long walk from my house to my high school in the snow while wearing stilettos and lighting two cigarettes in a row without taking off my secondhand leopard-print gloves. If any of us happened to wear a skirt that hung lower than our middle fingertips (not that we would have ever thought to measure our clothing in such a manner), it would have been a good bet that the skirt was topped off with something filmy, slinky, or torn. I had a habit of cutting the sleeves and collars off my t-shirts, so my bra straps tended to peek out, along with that pièce de résistance, my wicked, beguiling collarbone. To think of those poor boys in my classes, trying their best to get into Cornell with my clavicle on full display!

The idea that we angst-ridden alt girls, with our lacy black bras showing under white tank tops, the straps slipping down our shoulders while we drew tattoos on each other’s arms with eyeliner in the cafeteria, may have been preventing our male peers from concentrating on their studies never occurred to us. When the popular boys bothered to look at us at all, it wasn’t to complain that we were distracting them from their right to learn, but to call us freaks. With snooty disdain, we’d sneer at them with our bright red lips and tell them to come see us perform at the Rocky Horror Picture Show that weekend if they wanted to see something really freaky.

I don’t remember much of what I learned in high school, but I know it was never once suggested to me that I was a distraction. I was called a delinquent more than once, but never a distracting one. My poor grades were a source of concern for my teachers, but not evidence that I was a vixen intent on lowering the grades of every horny boy who shared a classroom with me. The worst thing our principal ever said about my appearance was to ask what exactly was going on with my hair (“Aqua Net,” I answered). I took my share of shit from the jocks and cheerleaders, but never from the administration.

So, what has changed? Why, 30 years later, are we moving backwards? Why are girls being sent home with the idea planted in their heads that their appearance is so shameful that boys—important, essential boys—can’t concentrate because of the clothing choices that girls—unimportant, inconsequential girls—make? Why are girls being made to disrupt their own education by going home to change in order for boys to avoid catching a glimpse of their bra straps or thighs or collarbones? How is it that school has unofficially, yet powerfully, been declared an institution for boys first and foremost, with girls welcome as long as they follow stricter rules and are willing to present themselves with sufficient reverence of their male classmates? How much longer will it be before the first helicopter parent files a lawsuit claiming her son didn’t get into Stanford because the girls at his high school made it impossible for him to concentrate?

These are real questions, and I don’t know what the answers are, but I know I wouldn’t like them. The message behind boy-centric dress codes is as clear as it is cruel: Girls’ bodies are dangerous, distracting things that are best kept hidden from boys. Girls are expected to control their appearance and wardrobe because boys are not expected to control their reactions. This is not only a viciously condescending attitude, it’s also dangerous in that it reinforces the same mindset that makes people think it’s okay to ask victims of sexual assault what they were wearing when the crime occurred. Girls are being taught, younger and younger, that the assumed ramifications of how they dress are theirs, and theirs alone, to endure.

I can’t say exactly when the male gaze enrolled in high school and started shoving its weight around, but I do know that it’s well past time for a change, a shift of responsibility from girls to boys. Students, teachers, and administrators of all genders need to know that the way a girl is dressed is never an excuse to denigrate her or hold her responsible for the behaviors of others.

If you’d asked my 16-year-old self, with her short skirts, goth makeup, and C- average, for her thoughts about dress codes, she would have spat out something about how if boys can’t control themselves, that’s their own tough shit, not ours.

She’s got a bad attitude and a foul mouth, but that girl has a point.