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4/15/2014 1 Comment

By Maria DiPasquale, Staff Writer, Emerson College
I will never forget the day in middle school when my friend was pulled aside by one of the female administrators at lunch. “Your skirt is making Mr. Johnson* uncomfortable,” she told my friend. Mr. Johnson was our male assistant principal. My friend returned to my cafeteria table of goofy twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls deeply disturbed. By the end of middle school, we had all been on the receiving end of such interactions with various teachers and administrators. It was hammered into us that what we wore to school would be closely monitored by our teachers, administrators, and, most importantly, boys.

Straps must be more than two fingers in width. When you drop your hands by your sides, your fingers must touch fabric or your skirt is too short. Your top cannot be too low cut. “It’s distracting to the boys,” they said, again and again.

By the time I got to high school, I started to notice a pattern. “More developed” girls were more likely to be pulled aside for various offenses: low-cut tops, stomach-revealing shirts, tight-fitting leggings. It just so happens that many of the girls that administrators put into this category were black. And it wasn’t just girls. Predominantly black boys were targeted for participating in the trend of “sagging” their pants. “Pull up your pants!” administrators and teachers would snap before erupting into rants about looking “proper.”

The message was clear: the girls with the developed bodies were sexually distracting to boys; the boys of color weren’t wearing clothes deemed “proper” or “professional.” The entire population of students was expected to fit into a single template of dress. In my time in school, I watched only a couple of my white male classmates get in trouble for breaking the dress code; usually they were just asked to take off baseball caps or hoods. Some people might think that complaints about the dress codes are petty and childish. But I disagree. The problem is not just the dress codes themselves, but who is selected to get in trouble for breaking them. These people are undeniably selected along race, sex, and class lines. What’s worse, these dress codes don’t stop once we leave school. Enforcing sexist and racist dress codes in school is only conditioning for sex-based dress codes in the workplace. Dress codes are just another way our society controls the sexuality of women and attempts to whitewash people of color.
So let me tackle these issues one by one. Let’s start with controlling the sexuality of women. The age-old excuse of distracting the boys needs to go. For one thing, it is a completely heteronormative assumption that every boy is checking out girls. For another, it teaches girls that boys do not have control over their own bodies. These administrators paint a pretty ugly picture of men as beings so overcome by desire that they lose all control over their body parts when an attractive woman walks in wearing a short skirt and low-cut top. Men should be especially offended by this image. interviewed a thirteen-year-old girl at a middle school in Evanston, Illinois that recently received press for a protest on the school’s ban on leggings. “It’s a lot like saying that if guys do something to harass us, it’s our fault for that. We’re the ones being punished for what guys do,” the girl said.

This is a problem that has been played out again and again, in classrooms, in the workplace, and in countless rape cases. Anyone who has spent any time studying rape culture knows that “promiscuous clothing” is an immediate indicator that a rape survivor “wanted it.” Claims that women made it impossible for a man to not have sex with her persuade many people to sympathize with rapists who then have a much easier time getting away with a violent, dehumanizing crime. These dress codes build up this culture that assumes that any girl wearing even slightly suggestive or flattering clothing is sending out a clear message that she is open to sexual activity. This idea that the clothing we women wear will distract our male counterparts becomes ingrained in our minds. If I have to go to the convenience store late at night, I often change from tights to jeans so that my clothing won’t seem suggestive and invite unwanted men to jeer at me. When I dress up for an interview, I make sure to wear a longer skirt or pants and a top that doesn’t reveal any skin. It has been ingrained in my head that dressing overly feminine will do two things: turn me into a distracting sexual object to men, and keep my peers from taking me seriously.

This whole idea of being taken seriously carries over into the racist aspects of these dress codes. The war on sagging in high schools is pretty universal. In the same interview, the thirteen-year-old claimed that boys at her school were only “dress-coded” when they were participating in the trend. In the same way that women must don blazers, powersuits, and pants to be taken seriously, men of color who participate in various trends often associated with hip-hop culture must pull up their pants, take off their hoods, and do basically anything to make them look more like white upper class men. I would contend that to be taken seriously, we must adapt to the precedent set by the white males who have always dominated the public sphere. “Dress male” if you’re a woman and “dress white” if you’re a person of color. Of course, there is no one way to “dress male” or to “dress white” – if anything, these ideas have become increasingly classed. We are all expected to look upper class if we want to be taken seriously.

Protests like the one that occurred at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Illinois give me hope that perhaps one day we will move toward changing this fairly universalized dress code. The girl interviewed contended that some of the boys at her school were upset by the dress code policies: “They think the dress code is against them, too, because they don’t like having it blamed on them by teachers, being told that the dress code is their fault,” she said. “They don’t think it’s fair to them or us.”

I’m personally fed up with having my body policed by employers and teachers. I’m fed up with having to wonder if I’m going to be perceived in a sexual manner or that I’m not going to be taken seriously because my dress isn’t “professional” enough. I don’t know what the exact solution is, because I believe that this problem is deeply embedded in our culture.
Many people think that school uniforms are the answer to the problem. While it is obviously true that students at plenty of schools across the country attend classes each day in uniform, I believe that these students still face similar problems that students at my own non-uniformed public school did. There are still the same attitudes behind the dress codes of uniforms; they are often designed to cover up and to not be distracting. Students can still be reprimanded when they betray the ideal uniform. For example, girls can hike up their skirts to a length that is “too short” and boys can sag their pants if they don’t wear a belt. Additionally, school uniforms can be more costly to lower-income students than simply buying their own clothes.

In my opinion, the only way to truly combat this problem is to begin shifting the culture. This solution is similar to the one I would give to preventing rape. We have to change these attitudes that contribute to the same rape culture responsible for sexual assault. We must start educating teachers and administrators on the harmfulness of using the “distracting to boys” approach when creating dress codes. We have to stop telling girls in schools and the workplace to change their appearance based on this notion. We must change our ideal for serious school and work environments so that it no longer is tailored specifically to the upper class white male that has always ruled these environments. If we, as a society, are going to integrate our work environments with different races and genders, we must change the work environment itself. The dress code of the environment, therefore, must change. It must stop being necessary to emulate this ideal look in order to be “taken seriously” in these environments. Until then, dress codes will continue to reinforce patterns of sexism, racism, and classism.

*name has been changed
Maria DiPasquale is a sophomore Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College with a concentration in fiction. She is working