Dress codes have been denounced for slut shaming and perpetuating misogynistic attitudes. As our society works towards a future accepting all identities, people have gained the courage to express themselves as they wish, resulting in a much more nuanced political landscape than just male vs. female conventions. I argue that enforcing sartorial rules negatively affect everyone now more than ever. I am lucky to live in New York City and attend a liberal university inclusive of all races, genders, sexual orientations and beliefs. At the beginning of each class, it is common for professors to ask students what their preferred pronouns are to facilitate a comfortable environment for everyone. Of course, policing what students wear based on assumptions of their genders is out of the question. I recognize that this is a bubble and that the majority of the world isn’t as progressive.. In fact, I myself attended a high school with a strict dress code.
I attended Christian school, meaning we had chapel service once a week and teachers shamed girls for wearing shirts that didn’t cover their collarbones or skirts that went past their fingertips. A dress code violation meant detention. The main qualm amongst students regarding these rules arose from the fact that girls’ rules were stricter than boys’. By setting particular conventions that separated girls from boys, young men were conditioned to believe that hypermasculinity was natural, and not a product of environment (they were not to grow out their hair or wear skirts/dresses). Meanwhile, young women were subject to greater scrutiny among peers. My school went from kindergarten to 12th grade, meaning the institution embedded this problematic ideology on impressionable minds.
I did not adhere to the dress code throughout high school, and people talked. My friends would jokingly tell me that I needed to invest in longer skirts and more conservative shirts. They didn’t make these comments maliciously, but their remarks showed how ingrained my private school’s culture was. The perpetrators made no attempts to hide their intent to foster this type of community. At one point during my junior year, a male teacher stuck his fingers into a knit top that I was wearing, pulling me towards him as he told me I wasn’t to wear that article of clothing again. This occurrence was not rare. I witnessed teachers strategically standing in crowded hallways during passing periods like soldiers at their posts. Some went as far as asking young women clutching textbooks to move them so teachers could determine whether their chests were covered. Although my high school made the hackneyed argument that dress code promoted a learning environment free of distractions, by actively seeking out what the rules deemed as “offenses,” the administration promoted an environment where women were merely objects of the male gaze.
The male gaze is a term coined in the 1970’s by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey to describe the way the media depicted women merely as objects to be looked at by men. Mulvey took her observation of cinema and applied it to the patriarchal society. Unfortunately, her theory is still relevant in many real-life contemporary settings, especially those that enforce sartorial rules. In the case of my high school, the administration projected what the male gaze would find sexually appealing and banned all forms of it from young women. Not only does this enforce the idea that women are obligated to cater to men’s needs, but it also tells cis-gender, heterosexual men that it’s natural to see women’s bodies as sexual, and nothing more than that. Men who don’t identify as such are not even considered in this problematic model. The issue here is that cis-gender heterosexual men are not even considered to be part of the issue, instead the blame is shifted onto their female counterparts.
By deeming articles of clothing as “inappropriate,” adults overtly sexualize children. This allows us to pose the question of how has this issue gotten so out of control that women subject each other to this system? It is easy to see how twisted it can be when a male teacher corrects a female student on their attire. But what about women teachers who are supposed to be role models for these young children? This creates a never ending cycle of shame. Female teachers who support this intolerance are those who have become conditioned to accept it because society has normalized it. Normalization of sexist dress code is a slippery slope that ultimately promotes rape culture. By policing what women put on their bodies and promoting “modesty,” we strip women and young girls of the ownership of their bodies. When you teach young women and girls that their bodies don’t belong to them, you strip them of their agency to say no. And men become more accustomed to women’s bodies than women are of their own. In a school setting, this model is even more disconcerting because young people are more subject to environmental influences.
I’ve been a victim of slut shaming as early as elementary school, when the school counsellor told my mother that I needed to stop wearing a denim skirt because “boys were talking.” I felt indecent for exposing my legs. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t realize the implications of the situation. Instead, I just felt ashamed to have elicited such indecent thoughts. The boys who were caught talking about my body in such a way weren’t punished. The double standard shows how men are valued over women; institutions recognize men’s desires while putting the blame on women. Thanks to the progressiveness of my generation, I’ve come to my own conclusions that I was never at fault, but rather my teachers and the institutions they were apart of, were to blame for seeing my undeveloped and even developed body as inherently sexual.