The Perennial Problem of Gendered Dress Codes
Recently I was chatting about dress codes with a friend whose husband is a high school principal. They were lamenting that he had been caught in the crossfire between (a) being required to write a dress code and (b) resentment that the resulting dress code treats male and female gendered students inequitably. He has my sympathy. I think that he probably did do his best in the circumstances. But. His students are correct, and they are not being hypersensitive, when they point out that the dress code hits female identified students harder than male identified ones. I agree that he has been placed in an unfair, no-win situation, but the students criticizing him are not the ones at fault, nor do they need to shut up. The students, themselves, are placed in an unfair, no-win situation by a larger culture that equates female-identified bodies with sex, while sex is a non-public behavior. The upshot is that female-identified bodies in public are, inherently, viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and unease. I’m not breaking any new ground by pointing this out, but the fact that this is still an issue means that people like me will still be bringing it up. Public school principals cannot single-handedly change society, but it is even more unreasonable to ask already vulnerable teens and tweens who have accrued less life experience, and are not in positions of authority, to do so.
My first elementary school (long ago, and in a conservative town) required me, as a girl, to wear dresses. This was a public school, and I was not permitted to wear trousers. I was a generally obedient child, so the worst I endured was being cold in the winter, and not being able to run full-out in PE, but that was about it. My older sisters were more rebellious, and they suffered to a greater degree from the dress codes. One, who was in junior high at the time, was sent home from school in very public disgrace for wearing trousers. She was not allowed back that day, and not at all if she was not wearing a skirt. My eldest sister was at the high school. She, as well as half a dozen other girls, were paddled by the male principal for wearing blue-jeans to school. These examples were extremely effective in reinforcing my own obedience. At six it’s easier to figure out which battles you cannot win, than how to fight back effectively. Part of the function of schools is to socialize children, meaning, in part, to get them to adapt their expectations and world-view to the larger culture around them. I’d argue that this can be problematic, particularly when done in a narrow-minded and dogmatic fashion (and the nature of institutional, bureaucratic rule-making lends itself to this.) It is especially damaging, however, when the socialization that children are being required to accept is built upon extremely contradictory assumptions. As my eldest sister pointed out “everyone” wore blue-jeans. In movies and advertisements she constantly saw women in blue-jeans. So what made it a punishable offense for her to wear them? Of course, the argument went that school was a more formal setting, and that blue-jeans were not appropriate. But boys were not paddled for wearing blue-jeans, and they were not sent home for wearing trousers. The issue was not that trousers were inappropriate, it was that our, female, bodies in trousers were seen as problematic.
I’ve no doubt that a boy showing up to those schools in a skirt would have been dealt with harshly. This is part of the same enforcement of a gendered hierarchy, and can be horrible for everyone who doesn’t benefit from the framework. The value differential, male equated with better, and female with less-than, meant that the situation played out differently for boys and girls. Boys were not being hammered with images of men in skirts, and being told that if they wore skirts they would be seen as stronger and better. Skirts were “feminine” and only someone who was willing (or forced) to be less-than would wear them. This was tragic for boys who didn’t identify as masculine, or who wanted to wear skirts, but the message was consistent, and boys did not show up for school in “girls” clothes. Girls, on the other hand, were being told outside of school, “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Virginia Slims was not the only company to subvert the women’s movement for commercial purposes, but that slogan perfectly encapsulates the impossible position in which girls found themselves. “Coming a long way” suggested that we’d improved over our mothers’ situation, and this “improvement” was represented by entering the “man’s world” and doing things that our fore-mothers had not been allowed (that word is important) to do, like smoking and wearing trousers. If we didn’t do these things we were weak and retrograde. But. We were still called “baby” and we clearly were not “allowed” to do masculine things in the formal environment of school.
I admit that I hesitated before using the Virginia Slims ads here, not because they were for cigarettes, but because they have become such a classic example of subversive sexism. The reality, however, is that at the ages of six, fifteen and sixteen, in a world where many of our mothers were reluctant to admit that they “had” to work, and we could not wear trousers to school, my sisters, our friends and I didn’t look at those ads and think “well, there’s an egregious example of corporate cynicism and movement appropriation.” We collected the ads because they were well-crafted to tap into a story we understood, of women overcoming prejudice and claiming a place in the world. We were meant to see the women in the ads as beautiful and strong, and we did. They were the sorts of women we wanted to be, and that we wished our apologetic mothers already were. They were better than we were, not in spite of the fact that their outfits would have broken the school dress code, but because of it.
That was long ago and far away. The second wave of feminism has moved to the back of the stage, and the third wave is taking a bow. Offspring could go to school wearing clothing bought in the boy’s department with no repercussions. So it’s all good, right? Yeah, no. We’ve come a long way, but we are still working with the same gendered hierarchy. There are still “boys” and “girls” departments at most stores. It is still more culturally acceptable for girls to don clothing items designated “male” than for boys to wear “girls” clothes, and for the same reasons. The words “girl” and “boy” still evoke different images, and different valuations. It is a rare American parent who will dress a baby boy in a flowered pink outfit, and those that do, do so with an awareness that they are being transgressive. And our girls are still being hammered with a continuous stream of images of strong, successful women wearing clothing that breaks the school dress code. The specifics and nuance of that clothing, however, have shifted.
When I started school, we were required to wear markers of femininity if we were identified as girls (and not allowed to wear them for those who were identified as boys). Media culture told girls that we would need to break the school rules to be successful in adult culture. So, trousers meant accomplishment outside of school, and punishment within. The justification for the dress code was not that we needed to be clearly marked as girls, but that girls in trousers were slatternly, unprofessional and distracting. The combination of rule and justification created its own proof. Only a girl who was rebelling would wear trousers, so she was, indeed, distracting. She was labeled and treated as a slattern by the people in power, so everyone, often including her, accepted that she was. Of course, we grew up, we kept wearing trousers, and now our daughters can wear trousers to school. Hooray! Except. Some of them are still being sent home from school for breaking the dress code. Why?
Because they are still trying to emulate the women who are presented as successful and strong, and they are still being penalized for it. At this point in my life when I picture a successful, strong woman that I wish I could be like, it’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I’m guessing that she would not run afoul of any high school dress code. But let’s be realistic, neither she, nor I, are seventeen. So where are are teens and tweens seeing role models? More or less the same places my sisters and I did.
Do you notice anything about how women are presented? They are, generally, more exposed than men. Now, I am most emphatically NOT here to criticize the clothing or the people who wear it. I AM pointing out that men and women are presented differently, and that women are, on the whole, (yes, not always, there are exceptions that prove the rule) shown with more skin exposed, even if it is subtle. So, a romantic film for children? Bare arms, shoulders, chest, cleavage and ankle only for her.
Similar kick-ass super-hero outfits? She’s got shorter sleeves and a lower neckline.
Similar everyday-clothing bad-ass outfits? She’s wearing spaghetti straps (forbidden at most public high schools). Also, she looks cold.
Alas, that quintessential, and previously forbidden, emblem of equality from my childhood, the coveted blue jeans, is also advertised differently to men and women, even when the outfits are ostensibly matched. I like Gap clothes, but he looks like he’s ready to go to class, and she would be told off.
Plus, her ankles are exposed, so it’s less practical for taking shortcuts if she’s running late.
Again, I know that you can find exceptions, and I’m glad. But the basic pattern is that men’s bodies are covered and women’s are revealed. Women’s bodies are presented as sexually attractive, either overtly or more subtly. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the dress code from Offspring’s high school. Xyr school was, by most standards, liberal, progressive, and “tolerant”. Like my friend’s partner, the administration worked hard to combat sexism in the dress code, to the point that they eschewed the words “man”, “woman”, “boy”, “girl”, “male” and “female”. So how could it possibly still be sexist?
Leaving aside the sections on slogans and gang insignia (for this post) the dress code stipulates that “district regulations expect student dress to be appropriate for a positive educational environment. Dress that could be considered distracting, or an interference with the educational process is prohibited.” That’s pretty vague and up for interpretation. After all, my sisters’ legs in trousers were distracting back in the day. I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t be now. So what does this mean in practical terms? “Apparel should cover front and back, top and bottom.” We are already getting to the gendered distinction, here, without actually referring to gender. Who is being uncovered in the media? Who is actively being sold clothing that covers less?
Back to the dress code, we are told that, “Shirts and blouses must cover the back to the shoulder blades and all of the stomach and cleavage. Shirts and pants/skirts must be touching in both front and back. Inappropriate tops include but not limited to the following: midriff tops, crop tops, strapless tops, and tube tops. All of the buttocks must be covered to tips of fingers. Shorts, pants or skirts should be of an appropriate length. To determine appropriate length, stand with arms to the end of tips. The clothing should come to, at least, the bottom of the fingertips.” How many of these rules are, in reality, directed at boys or young men and in practice applied to them? I’ve got the knee-jerk old lady thing going on where I look at kids’ clothes and think things like, “honestly, that person’s shorts are two inches above their gluteal fold!” There are two important aspects to this. (1) It’s never leapt to mind in response to boys’ clothing and (2) that’s largely because I’ve been conditioned not to notice or question boys’ clothing. The issue is not with the kids. It’s with me.
When the school dress code blithely states “clothing may not disturb the educational process” we should be asking ourselves whose bodies are coded as disturbing, and who is likely to be disturbed? Before Offspring’s graduation the administrators took all of the girls aside, and only the girls, regardless of how they identified, what they were wearing, or where they would be sitting on stage. They told the girls to cross their legs, so that they would not be “exposed” to the audience. All of the girls who were visible obediently crossed their legs, as well, for the most part, as their arms, hunching shoulders forward, and looking self-conscious. Offspring was wearing trousers (yay, 21st century!) and sitting midway back. I could barely see xyr face, much less anything else. On the other hand, half of the young men in the front row were wearing baggy shorts and sitting in the splayed leg, masculine pose (aka “manspreading”). They were, indeed, exposed. No one in the audience complained that they were distracted. Now, why might that be?
Let’s look at one, last quote from the high school handbook. “Repeated violations of the dress code (considered defiance) will result in serious consequences.” Did you catch that phrase, “considered defiance”? Girls who break the dress code are still labelled rebellious, trashy (the word slatternly has dropped from favor), and disturbing. This in an era where schools proudly assert that they want to produce “independent thinkers” who will “fearlessly challenge the world”. I suppose “the world” doesn’t include school administrators who submit to and perpetuate a gendered and inequitable status quo. Does this seem like a harsh response to something as trivial as a school dress code (and, after all, some of those shorts are pretty ridiculous, amiright?) To which all I can say is, the issue isn’t the blue-jeans, it’s what they symbolize.
featured image from Education News
1973 Beauty Ad, Long & Silky Hair Conditioning Lotion for Long Hair, Three Pretty Teen Girls in Jeans by Classic Film
Virginia Slims ads: 1975 Saratoga Races ad from Sighs and Whispers; Train ad from Risk Sense
Colour Code your infant from This Blog Does Not Exist
Vintage Levis ads from Voices of East Anglia
Fantastic Four poster from kxly
pictures from the Met Gala: Beyonce and Jay-Z from The Cut, Joshua Jackson and Diane Kruger from The Fashion Spot
Plaid shirt ads from Forever 21
Guardians of the Galaxy poster from the Daily Mail
Cinderella posters from MovieNasha and Popsugar
poster for Furious 7 from Deadline Hollywood
jeans advertisements from Gap
As the summer months … note from Today
List of No from Robin Hutton
manspread from the New York Times
Is Student Safety Threatened by an Exposed Bra Strap? from Jezebel