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As the warm season creeps upon us, it seems that the media is starting to swim with bikinicommentary. And, it appears, we’re also going to be hearing from “dress code enforcers” like Jessica Lahey, who penned this piece in “The Atlantic” bemoaning the state of the hems of These Kids Today. Her pearl-clutching piece reads like a litany of tragedy as she tells us all about how young girls objectify themselves and it just breaks her heart.
I have a lot of responses to this article, but Amanda Marcotte summed it up pretty sharply when she said, “If you don’t want girls judged by their hemlines, stop judging girls by their hemlines.”
I get deeply uncomfortable when people start talking about what girls “should” wear, and note that it’s always girls. “But when I worry about students, it tends to be the girls,” Lahey writes. “They are the ones I lose sleep over.”
To me, that smells an awful lot like sexism.
Her essay assumes firstly that all her students are heterosexual, and secondly paints boys as slavering, sex-obsessed, hormone-riddled monsters who utterly lack self-control and are totally unable to conduct themselves around girls. And no wonder -- if boys are taught that exposing skin above the knee is a sexual invitation, and that underwear are inherently sexualized, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “revealing” clothes are deemed sexual, naughty and subjects of commentary.
In other words, Lahey’s concerntrolling is what’s creating the problem; she’s living in a society where the bodies of women and girls are sexualized, she’s reinforcing that by making it seem like some parts of the body are “bad” and in need of covering, and consequently the boys in her classroom are learning some really unpleasant things about girls. Like that girls who wear short skirts are walking sexual invitations, or that girls who wear low-cut tops have low self-esteem.
Middle school, the environment where Lahey teaches, is a really terrible time to be a kid. With a few exceptions, a lot of kids struggle at that age because they’re growing into themselves as people, starting to diverge from their parents, and figuring out who they are. Some kids are bullied, others find their group and work to fit in, some flutter on the outside, trying to get in.
Clothes are one of the ways middle schoolers express themselves, explore their environment, and try to fit in with their peers. Some schools have gone to uniforms in order to avoid problems like poor kids feeling marginalized because they can’t afford designer clothes, or the use of gang insignia in school. Others use dress codes to keep clothing “classroom appropriate.”
LET'S REMIND GIRLS THEIR BODIES ARE SCARY, SHALL WE?
Dress codes tend to be much more lenient for boys, and generally focus on things like “no sagging pants” and “no hats indoors.” Girls get mandates like “No spaghetti straps, tube or halter tops, strapless tops, backless tops, backless with tie tops, off-the-shoulder or low-cut tops, or tops of see-through or fishnet fabric shall be allowed,” and are reminded that “acceptable length” for skirts and shorts is mid-thigh or longer, depending on the school.
For boys, the emphasis seems to be on maintaining a tidy physical appearance, and, of course, marginalizing types of dress associated with specific social groups and classes. Not for nothing do most dress codes enforce a very WASPish appearance, from banning headgear (suggesting that Sikh, Muslim, and other students who wear headcoverings will need to appeal the dress code) to attacking saggy pants, which many school administrators seem to associate with “gangs,” by which they mean “Black culture.”
But for girls, it’s all about reminding young women that their bodies are shocking and need to be concealed. Their bodies are dangerous. They should be ashamed of their bodies, saving them for That Special Someone, and shouldn’t go around spilling their sexuality willy-nilly where anyone might see it. Because obviously 11-year-old girls are totally sexual.
Does anyone else think it’s gross to have a dress code that basically turns young women into sex objects at a school where many young women haven’t even hit puberty yet? Lahey praises a line from “Little Women” in which a character notes that she fears another character will want to become “merely decorative,” but isn’t a lascivious focus on young girls’ bodies in a dress code kind of telling them that the most important thing about them is their bodies?
A dress code informing young women that they need to conceal their bodies is one that comes with a heaping of body shaming, and a fair note of femme-shaming as well, because many of the stipulations in school dress codes specifically target femme gender expression. Such codes suggest that it’s impossible to be pretty and smart, or that women can’t have fun with clothing and do fantastic things that have nothing to do with clothing; that a “proper” girl wears demure clothing and focuses on her education while “improper girls” (sluts, whores) become consumed with clothing and hair and makeup and allow their brains to atrophy.
Instructors and schools that are concerned about young women’s self-esteem, and want girls to know that they matter for more than what their bodies look like and how much of their skin they expose, should try, uh, actually living those values. The hyperfocus on what girls are wearing with a healthy heaping of judgment sends precisely the opposite message, underscoring that girls should be constantly concerned about what they are wearing and who might be judging them for it.
Self-esteem in women and girls is a huge social problem, and sending blistering messages about acceptable hemlines is not the way to resolve it. The way to resolve it is by creating a world where women are viewed as equals, where self-expression is encouraged and delighted in, where what a girl wears or looks like has no bearing on who she is, and where girls aren’t slyly and insidiously told from birth on up that short hem=slut=asking for it.