As we start back to school in this country there has been talk about school dress codes. I am a bit conflicted about what I hear and read. I hear a resistance to the sexualization of our young girls and a resistance to the clothing which proclaims that sexualization. This sounds good. On the other hand I hear a resistance to the idea girls should be ashamed of their bottoms, their boobs, their shoulders, and a resistance to the idea we should primarily be concerned about the distraction our girls might cause to boys. This makes sense to me as well. I hear and read school staff reiterating the dress codes apply equally to males and females and I find this less than honest. The codes might be written in a way which speaks equality but the truth is, the codes are far more frequently applied to females because they are far more likely to break the dress code. Is this because our girls are naturally more disobedient? Is this because our girls feel the pull to be sexy more strongly? Are they more slutty than boys? Or is it because of aspects of our culture which sexualize our daughters more so than our sons and then shame them for the sexualization we have inflicted upon them?
Obviously, I think the latter more likely. However, I am not sure it would be helpful for us to then acquiesce to the sexualization rampant in our culture and encourage girls to wear whatever society pressures them to wear. What if instead our dress codes became counter cultural rather than shaming? What if we re-articulate the reasoning behind our dress codes? Our dress codes need not be about distractions or shame. Rather let our dress codes be about valuing minds and healthy bodies and healthy sexuality with equal power, equal expectations for all. Our dress codes could seek to undermine the culture which exploits women and teaches men to consider women as objects of lust or shaming.
My body is never merely a distraction to someone else. My body is an instrument of my power in the world. It is an agent of change. It is a conduit of my strength. It is my health. It is a vehicle for my agency as I work to make the world a better place. My body houses me and when it is healthy and strong I can better face the challenges of life and be a force for good. If our dress codes loudly and proudly proclaim this view of the bodies of our young men and women then they will address what is unhealthy in our society rather than shaming our young women for the consequences of that ill health.
A dress code might begin by saying “This school is an academic environment. We are here to learn from one another: students learn from staff, staff from students, and students learn from one another. In addition to academics, together we seek to help each other learn what is healthy and what is unhealthy, what is helpful and what is unhelpful. Certain aspects of our world encourage us to look at each other as sexual objects, to diminish our bodies to nothing more than what is sexy or pretty. In this place we see our bodies as vehicles of things such as health, strength, will, and mind. Our bodies are important for our health and our ability to act in this world. Therefore, we seek to dress in ways which counter the culture of over-sexualization. In order to better guide one another into a healthy view of our bodies and to act as agents of positive change in our society we adopt the following dress code….”
Our young people are thoughtful and vulnerable to the messages we send. It is not in their best interest for us to keep policies in place because that is the way it has always been done, or because it is more comfortable for the adults. Our schools and the staff of the schools do a wonderful job of teaching and caring for our students. This is not meant as a criticism of them. It just may be time we as a nation and communities rethink and articulate better reasoning for why we do what we do in regards to dress codes.