The Insidious Policing of Our Bodies
an argument about the destructiveness of school dress codes
This is how early it starts.
My daughter comes home from school on a Thursday, reporting the events of the day. She loves to give me the scoop on everything that happens. I don’t have to dig for details.
I’m pulling together ingredients for dinner when I hear her exclaim: “Oh, and there’s a new dress code at school!”
“What?” I say, already on high alert. The weekend before, I had attended a local wedding where a fellow guest told the story of her niece being sent to the principal’s office for wearing too short shorts on her first day of middle school. I hated the thought of this girl being shamed for what she was wearing, waiting for her parents to bring a more “appropriate” item of clothing before she could return to class. I couldn’t believe such an antiquated policy existed where I live in liberal Palo Alto, and in our public schools (it turns out it doesn’t). Sure, maybe short shorts are “distracting” for boys, but lots of things are distracting these days. The news, face masks, phones. Why should this one distraction be something that must be rectified?
So when my fifth grader came home to tell me about a dress code in her elementary school (that parents were never told about), I erupted in anger.
This is how it starts, I thought. The policing of women’s bodies.
It did not help that just a day before the Supreme Court had permitted Texas to ban all abortions after six weeks. Social media hosted a flurry of outrage and dismay. How did it get to this point? How could people really not care about a woman's agency over her own body?
But as my daughter talked with me, I realized that we allow society to police women’s bodies all the time. The slope is slippery, and evidently, it starts as early as fifth grade.
This new “dress code” was a requirement that shorts had to go past your fingertips and that you avoid shirts with spaghetti straps. Also, no midriff, a word none of the ten-year-olds knew. When my husband and I queried our principal about the impetus for this declaration, asking why she had all the children line up with their hands at their sides to see whose shorts “passed the test,” she assured us our daughter did nothing wrong. She wasn’t in trouble. Then she wrote: “it is important that students dress in a comfortable manner that reduces distractions and promotes engagement in learning.”
It had likely been many years since our principal had walked through the doors of a children’s clothing store. But unfortunately, it is near impossible to find shorts that would “pass the test” in the girls section. We live in California. It is hot until November. So our principal was essentially requiring my daughter to wear pants despite our 84 degree weather. Wouldn’t you think being hot might be a distraction to her learning?
But the thing is, I don’t think anyone was worried about my daughter being distracted by her own too short shorts. The dress code was, is and always has been about boys, despite the fact it is usually girls who are most impacted by the statutes.
School dress codes stem from the “purity culture” point of view that sexualizes bodies. This belief system teaches us to be afraid of our bodies, and instructs females that they hold the power to make others sin by how they choose to dress themselves. I was raised in this culture, spending most of my high school years ensconced in Young Life. But today, I know how destructive it is. Bodies are just bodies. A thigh is a thigh. A shoulder is a shoulder. The only thing threatening about those parts of a girl’s body is what is going on in the mind of the beholder.
This is why dress codes are so problematic and patriarchal. Dress codes place the responsibility on girls to not tempt boys. Boys see skin and they think sex. There is nothing we can do about that. So just wear something that covers you up a little bit more to care for your brothers, okay?
(Taken further, this line of thinking leads destructively to “she was asking for it,” or “well, if she didn’t want to get raped, why did she go out looking like that, and why was she drinking?”)
Let’s put aside the fact that my daughter is in fifth grade. Even when dress codes are targeted towards teens, they still remain antiquated. Teenage boys will think about sex at some point during the day no matter what our daughters wear. That’s okay, in fact, it’s perfectly normal. It is not the responsibility of our daughters to prevent boys from doing something that is inherently natural. (Besides the fact that these guidelines assume heterosexuality).
Dress codes stem from a time when the goal of society was to preserve everyone’s virginity until marriage, when girls were taught to be demure, their value tied to their purity. We don’t live in that society anymore. Why are we teaching our children that we still do? (Also, why does the government spend $150M on abstinence-only campaigns?)
I understand that we don’t want children wearing swear words on their clothing, or violent or offensive imagery. But by banning crop tops, short shorts and bare shoulders, we are telling our girls that feeling comfortable in their clothing is less important than the male need for less distraction. We are also sending the message that their bodies are inherently shameful, something to cover up.
This is where it starts: the idea that women’s bodies are not their own. That their rights - to wear what they want, to express themselves, to decide whether they want to have a child, to have a life of their own - are less important than the rights of others. Boys “deserve” to work in an environment that is not distracting. So we police our daughters instead of considering how we might help those boys not be so distracted. Give them some mindfulness techniques. Teach them to look away. Why is it my daughter’s responsibility to take care of them?
Some might argue that it is “just a dress code.” Is it really worth it to make such a fuss?
But it is these small policings that lead us to the day when a legislature is comfortable banning abortion. We must continue to resist all the ways we tell our girls to give up their rights, to take one for the team, to prioritize others' needs over their own.
At its heart, this is about agency. What we believe women are entitled to. The dress code is yet one more instrument of our oppression.
I reached out to our school board. Our district does not support dress codes. But clearly, teachers are still taking things into their own hands, sending children to the principal when they wear something they deem inappropriate.
While I’m sure our principal thought “I’ll just make a light-hearted comment while the kids are lining up for school, a little reminder about what is appropriate school attire,” she didn’t realize that the messaging itself has ramifications. It tells my daughter that the clothes she has been wearing all year were not okay. She is learning from a person in authority that her body is better when it is covered. She is being taught the insidious belief that she must accommodate others, no matter how much it may inconvenience her own needs.
This is the patriarchy at work. This is how we get to the place where people think that they can tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
We’ve been doing it all along.
An Eight-Grader Challenges Her School’s Dress Code, The New York Times
An excellent middle-grade novel about the issue: Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone
Yearbook Photos of Girls Were Altered to Hide Their Chests, The New York Times
The astonishingly brave essay by Merritt Tierce, The Abortion I Didn’t Have, in this week’s New York Times Magazine