Covering up the real problem

I remember what I wore on the last day of elementary school.

I spent my final hours as a sixth-grader in a red tank top and navy cotton skort, running around the playfields and swinging from the rings on an unseasonably hot day in mid-June. I’d gotten the skort as a hand-me-down from my neighbor, and in the genius of my pre-adolescent fashion sense, couldn’t wait to whip it out for summer.

Three months later, I wore the same garment to my first-ever junior high dance. I was nearly turned away at the door, tugging and adjusting on my clothes under the critical eye of the principal, until she finally stamped my hand and let me pass.

In that moment, the message to my 12-year-old brain was clear: in some mystic metamorphosis over the last few months, my legs had become something bad. My legs were bad, my legs were dangerous, and now my job was to cover them up.

School dress codes are toxic. Our society needs to take a long, hard look at the assumptions behind them and their long-term ramifications on our collective consciousness.

The topic has been a source of debate in the media as of late, and the most reasonable pro-code argument is that school is supposed to prepare students for a work environment. The responsible thing for the school to do, then, is to emulate workplace culture as closely as possible, including incorporating a certain degree of formality into acceptable clothing.

This stance ignores the reality that it’s much, much easier to change your shirt than to change your own sense of self-worth.

School helps teach students something far more important than how to be an employee: it teaches them their place among their peers. It teaches them how to be decent to one another. And most importantly, it teaches them how to interact with others and maintain their sense of self -worth.

“Dress codes participate in a broader, on-going cultural concern with forms of female dress, defining what is acceptable,” according to a study in the journal of Youth and Society. “They consequently normalize certain forms of girlhood, problematize others, and suggest girls’ responsibility for the school’s moral climate.”

We tell young girls that parts of their body are inherently shameful, that if they show their legs or shoulders or midriffs then it indicates to others that they don’t respect themselves. They start to believe that their own self-respect relies on external sources.

A dress code tells young girls that they are merely a collection of body parts, and then we wonder why that’s all they start to see when they look in the mirror.

Compare the emotional trauma of trying to undo the damage of eight years of institutionalized objectification to the emotional trauma of having to dress differently than you’re used to when you get a job. The “workplace preparation” argument begins to pale. Lessons in decency are much more important than lessons in fashion.

While a code affects all students, it disproportionately impacts women. Take, for instance, the dress code of Evergreen Middle School, my alma mater and the location of the Great Dance Debacle of 2007:

Shirts/tops must extend to the beltline, no midriff showing and no undergarments (including bra straps) should be visible. No low cut necklines.

No revealing skirts/shorts. Outer garments should extend beyond fingertips when arms hang loosely at sides (including over tight pants); skin should be fully covered above fingertips.

This code stems from another common point of dispute: Dress codes help keep the focus on academics. Girls wearing conservative clothes are less likely to distract the boys, and so it’s better for the educational environment if they just cover up.

This argument is so insulting to young boys that it’s barely even worth acknowledgement, but it’s too pervasive to leave unaddressed.

Perpetuating this mindset is to promote rape culture among children, plain and simple. It takes the burden of decency off the subject of the sentence, “the looker,” and moves it to the object, the “looked upon.” It implies that, in addition to learning the course material, it’s somehow the job of the female classmate to shield her male counterparts from her own dangerously distracting belly button.

This message is damaging enough when applied to adults, but imagine the psychological consequences of asking “well what was she wearing?” to children.

Junior high and high school students want to have sex with each other. That’s just biology. Whether she’s wearing yoga pants, a parka or a fig leaf, he’s going to be distracted. The truly insulting part to young boys is the implication that they can’t get over it and take their geometry notes like functional human beings. And the truly terrifying part is that school administrators are sending the message that when the boys get turned on, they are no longer responsible for their actions.