I distinctly remember my sixth grade math teacher demanding that I zip up the hoodie I was wearing over a camisole. I was eleven and did not understand what was wrong with my outfit; I saw plenty of other girls wear the same thing every day. I came to learn that it was not the outfit that was the problem– rather, it was the girl who was wearing it.
As a preteen, I developed more quickly than my female peers. In addition to already feeling insecure about my changing body, I had to worry about being punished if I showed too much of it. If I was caught revealing too much of my cleavage, thighs, or shoulders, I was given detention, or my parents were called to report my “unacceptable” behavior. From the end of elementary school to the end of high school, I attended three different schools, one of which was a very liberal private school. Despite these schools’ various values and different age groups, the dress code restrictions were all the same. For example, from fifth grade to the end of my senior year of high school, I had to adhere to the “three finger rule,” which stated that if the straps of a girl’s tank top were not as wide as three of her fingers, then she showed too much of her shoulders. A similar rule was enacted to ensure that a girl did not show too much of her thighs, “the middle finger rule,” which stated that when wearing a dress, the hem must fall at or below the tip of the middle finger when a girl puts her arms to her side. The case of cleavage, however, was more discretionary: if a teacher believed that a girl bared too much of her chest, he or she could give her a written warning or, as was often in my case, reprimand the student in front of her peers.
Punishing a girl for revealing parts of her body demonstrates how girls’ socialization teaches them how to view themselves. According to prominent sociologist Herbert Blumer’s first two principles of socialization, we act towards certain objects or behaviors based on the meanings that arise through social interaction. Schools and other institutions that punish girls for wearing “revealing” clothing socialize them to be ashamed of their bodies. Based on how the people in power at their institutions view these parts of their body, girls are socialized to see their visible thighs, shoulders, and cleavage as sources of punishment, shame, and judgement. Peggy Orenstein, author of the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, explains in her New York Times article, “The Battle Over Dress Codes,” that “telling girls to ‘cover up’ just as puberty hits teaches them that their bodies are inappropriate, dangerous, violable, subject to constant scrutiny and judgment, including by the adults they trust.” Enforcing dress codes teaches girls to internalize the reactions they receive from authority and translate this negative feedback into their own self-perceptions.
However this behavior which receives negative feedback from authorities at schools and workplaces is met with positive feedback for certain female body types in other situations. Women clad in bikinis, baring their chests, legs, and butts adorn magazines easily accessible in grocery stores, bookstores, and likely on the kitchen counter. Popular celebrity news channels such as Access Hollywood, Extra!, and TMZ regularly praise women who have traditionally “good bikini bodies.” What message does this give to developing young women? They are constantly told to cover up, yet the women who are praised for their bodies are publicly celebrated when they show their skin. How does it make sense that women of all ages are expected to want to cover up their bodies when the celebration of shirtless women is so ubiquitous?
Stringent dress codes for women are often supported by the idea that a woman bearing her chest, thighs, or even her shoulders will distract men and will detract from their work or education. When images of nearly naked women are everywhere, how can a woman showing a little bit of skin suddenly become distracting? It is a double standard to celebrate a woman’s body in every type of media but then suddenly scandalize it in real life. Furthermore, this support for dress codes prioritizes a male’s work and education over a female’s. A man being distracted by a woman’s body is in no way comparable to a woman fearing for her safety after receiving stares, catcalls, and inappropriate comments from a man because of how she is dressed. Telling a woman that she can avoid this behavior by obeying a dress code does nothing to address men’s behavior in these situations. Blaming women for men’s behavior teaches women that they make themselves victims and excuses, and almost forgives the actions of men.
An everyday part of our culture, dress codes, starting from a young age, contribute to rape culture. Rape culture is the idea that a woman was “asking for it” because of her outfit, even though she said “no.” Rape culture is teaching women how not to be victims instead of teaching men not to be predators. Rape culture is teaching women at a young age to be afraid of their bodies because men might sexualize it. This behavior cannot continue and we must stop excusing it. Preventing rape culture can only happen if we stop saying “boys will be boys” when their stares and comments make girls uncomfortable. Orenstein shares in her article about the new campaign young girls have started on social media regarding dress codes: “Don’t tell us what to wear; teach the boys not to stare.” This mantra shifts the accountability onto males instead of tasking females with trying to control a male’s action via the way she chooses to dress.
Instead of implementing dress codes that force young women to stringently police their attire, men could be more conscious of how they view women and how their behavior reflects their views. Teaching men not to sexualize women’s bodies has more value in preventing rape culture than making a woman afraid of her own body. Eliminating dress codes, however, is not the solution and will not change a sexist cultural norm overnight. Orenstein explains the changes made to her daughter’s middle school’s dress code: clothing must allow the student a full range of motion without requiring perpetual adjustment. This new policy aims to eliminate the distraction to the wearer and does not mention any rules that regard distracting another student or teacher. In a world where young women are socialized to be incredibly self conscious of their bodies, this new dress code has the policy to empower women by shifting the focus of the dress code onto what they can do with their bodies for themselves, rather than how their body might look to someone else. A dress code has the power to shape a woman’s view of her body from a young age, and it is time that dress codes start making women of all ages empowered by their bodies rather than afraid of them.
Featured Image: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Florian Ramel. The image has been licensed for fair use by the Creative Commons license – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). No changes have been made.