It’s fall, everyone! Which means my back-to-school shopping list is loaded with the essentials: pencils, paper, notebooks, backpacks, and dress-code-appropriate attire that will protect the minds and eyes of our nation’s teenage boys from the distracting image of the female body.
High school dress code policies have been making national headlines for a few years now, and the latest bewildering news item gets extra points for weirdness. Devil's Lake High School in North Dakota has reportedly banned leggings, jeggings, and tight jeans, citing—and I am not making this up—the 1990 Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman as supposed proof that tight pants are the devil’s playground.
An English teacher at the school allegedly made a reference that female students' jeans made them look like “prostitutes walking the streets,” and the assistant principal played two clips from the film "Pretty Woman" to demonstrate that point. (Presumably, they cut the tape before that makeout scene on the piano).
Senior Mariah Fixen said that an issue with young male teachers being distracted by girls' clothing is part of what influenced the policy change.
"In some cases where there will be young male teachers, they can't tell you what you're wearing is distracting or anything," said Fixen. "So, they have to get a female teacher to tell you."
On some level, the argument for dress codes is rooted in a clash between parents and teenagers as old as time itself: Fashion evolves, styles change, and teens will forever be rolling their eyes and complaining to their friends that parents just don’t understand. (*ACHEM* Lady Sybil’s harem pants, anyone?) It’s precisely that teenaged search for identity and expression that makes all of this so tricky: At a time of intense vulnerability, changing bodies, wildly fluctuating hormones, and intensely craving approval from your peers, a task as simple as getting dressed in the morning can take on huge significance.
Which is why, when headlines like last month’s “Teenager Forced To Wear Shame Suit” hit the media, we all need to take notice. Fifteen-year-old Miranda Larkin had just transferred to a new high school. On her third day of classes, a teacher pointed to Miranda’s fingertip-length skirt, told her that she was in violation of the dress code, and made her change into a pair of red sweatpants and a neon yellow t-shirt with the words “Dress Code Violation” printed across the chest.
Miranda came home crying. Her mother cried foul, and filed a complaint with FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, joining the ranks of other crusading parents like Amy Redwine, who attended her daughter’s high school graduation wearing a belted Forever 21 sundress—the same dress that got her daughter sent home on her last day of school.
Is it worth taking a pause here to talk about the way that our culture sexualizes young women at an early age? Yes, absolutely. Because there’s truth in that, as well. Women and girls are vastly more likely than men to be objectified and sexualized by the media, from our advertisements to our television shows and our magazines. Our culture is one that often sends the message to women that our self-worth comes from our appearance, and that message is dangerous and harmful. And advocates for dress code policies say that this is precisely why the rules exist: to help protect teenage girls from feeling pressured to dress sexually. It’s a great idea in theory. The problem is, it doesn’t necessarily work.
That's because these policies aren’t telling young women to freely experiment with fashion as a means of self-expression and encouraging them to stay true to themselves. They’re sending the message that their teenaged bodies are a source of shame. They’re sending the message that male students cannot control their thoughts or actions if a girl is dressed a certain way. And they are telling female students that they should take responsibility for the thoughts and actions of their male classmates. That message is, I believe, vastly more dangerous.
Maybe it’s time to re-write the message. Dress code controversies strike me as incredibly teachable moments: a chance to remind the teenage boys of the world that women deserve their respect, no matter what they’re wearing. A chance to talk about double standards and why identifying them is important. A chance to talk about different body types and how dress code policies often unfairly target young women with bigger breasts or longer legs. A chance to remind the teenage women of America that they are simply not responsible for the behavior and sexuality of their male peers. And that there are many other things in the world that matter much, much more than appearances.
To Learn More About Gender Bias, Head To LookDifferent.org