This post is dedicated to Josephina Thompson and all the young women who will be sent home this school year for dressing modestly.
In the midst of the constant barrage of articles and blogs on controversial social issues in my Facebook news feed, there are posts proclaiming the evils of leggings and their oft mistaken cousin the yoga pant. Many schools ban leggings in their dress code standards.
Occasionally, a voice of reason breaks through the noise. Some schools allow leggings under very specific guidelines. Leggings are acceptable when worn with dresses or tunics that do not exceed a certain length.
Offenders are sanctioned through a variety of means, including in-house detention or removal from classes for the day. Young women – pubescent girls struggling with hormones and body image demons – are shamed and removed from class. Their perceived sexuality –always interpreted by adults — is more important than their education.
The body is once again elevated over the mind. We objectify developing women and reduce them to bodies.
There are two arguments in favor of vague dress codes – modesty and professionalism.
The fashionista in me always cringes at administrators’ obsession with cloth and spandex. The feminist in me is appalled that spandex encasing a knee in true Puritan style is reason enough to interrupt a child’s education. The rhetorician in me is annoyed by poorly-constructed arguments rationalizing such big brother-esque policies.
The Modesty Argument
The modesty argument is insulting. It insults men. I have a problem with this way of thinking.
Men are not soulless, emotionless beings incapable of reason, driven merely by sexual urges too explosive to control. The fact that we eliminate men’s responsibility in their thoughts and actions should insult men altogether. It reduces men to powerless, helpless, mindless wads of flesh who walk around like automatons to their sexual desires. This view is not helpful to men or to women. It insults the great men in my life like my father, uncle, husband, brothers, friends, and colleagues.
When young women state “I could wear a burlap sack, and men would still want sex” as an argument, there is a problem with our presentation.
Yes women, you are powerless against the evil men, and you will be victimized no matter what you do. Is this message we want to send to young women?
Do we want to send the message to our young boys that consent is an esoteric concept, and women wantonly woo them at every chance they have by the way they dress?
Personally, I hide my bum every chance I get.
I’m insanely modest, which is clearly evident in my Instagram posts. I am completely covered. I am neither immodest nor unprofessional.
Yet I would face suspension or equally undesirable consequences for my dress.
Why are we punishing teenagers for wearing the same thing I wear to work?
Why are we obsessed with body shaming young girls?
Why do we teach young men to evaluate women and their values solely through the lens of modesty?
Why do we teach young women to shoulder the responsibility of men’s actions and thoughts?
Why must they act as thought police?
We teach our boys not to touch a hot pot to avoid risking burns. Can we not teach them to not touch women without consent?
I know what some of you may be thinking. I read the comments on these dress code articles all the time. There’s a rule. A rule should be followed. I agree.
Should we never challenge arbitrary rules? Do we follow authority blindly?
Without protesting the rules, we would not have civil rights. Clearly, I’m making a comparison. Leggings and civil rights are entirely different.
Or are they? When we create an uncomfortable environment for individuals that single out one’s gender, we eradicate the right to learn in a safe atmosphere. Legally, this concept is called a hostile work environment. It is a form of sexual harassment. It is not acceptable at work or at school. We police this form of harassment on the college level. We must by law. Shouldn’t public schools follow suit/
While I’m on the subject of workplace etiquette and climate, let’s address the second argument, shall we?
The Professionalism Argument
Proponents defend school dress codes as a trial run for the professional world. Fair enough.
We should mandate suits if this is the case.
The supporters never indicate which professional setting. The medical establishment wears scrubs. Construction workers wear hard hats. Some companies require steel-toe boots. Companies with a more casual culture allow jeans and khakis.
What does professional dress mean? Herein lies the problem. Appropriateness is a concept, not a standard. It shifts according to the culture and the situation. Teach the concept, not a standard. The standard will never be correct all of the time.
This week is a good example.We are welcoming freshmen to campus. I live is a sweltering part of the U.S. plagued with high percentages of humidity. This week nature added heavy rain for good measure. Most of our festivities are outdoors. My colleagues, from administrative assistants to deans to the president, shed their usual attire — business casual and suits — for t-shirts and shorts. And yes, at least one colleague wore leggings.
My highly-educated professional colleagues wore leggings.
I teach at a university. My professional style shifts based on what I am doing each day. Today is an office day with no official appointments. I’m wearing a knit dress with leggings. Yesterday, I wore a suit. Tomorrow, I plan to wear slacks and a cardigan in the classroom. I wore leggings with a dress and safari jacket to the beginning-of-the-semester faculty meeting.
This is an outfit I wore to a recruiting event on campus:
This is an outfit that I posted in a previous blog post right before going to work. My colleagues loved it:
Or this outfit I wore in the classroom while teaching young men and women:
I want to point out that each dress exceeds the three-inch rule that forced a Huntsville, Alabama student to go home. I’d also like to point out that this young lady is showing way less leg and skin what I’m showing in the photos. She’s wearing an oversized sweatshirt. In August. In Alabama. I’m in Alabama. It’s very hot in August. But I digress.
Not only do I wear leggings regularly, I receive compliments from my coworkers about how professional and put-together I look.
Is that what we’re protecting our students from? I may like fashion, but I am taken seriously at my job. I’m educated. I’m skilled. I’m modest. I wear leggings. The leggings don’t negate my power in the world and don’t reduce me to a sexual object.
I’m not opposed to dress codes. I created one in the staff manual for the student organization I oversee that I rigorously enforce. My dress code doesn’t enforce subjective articles of clothing like leggings or shorts. It bans articles of clothing that do not bear the school’s logo or colors. There are times shorts are permissible as long as the students don’t wear another team’s logo at a sporting event. I should also mention that the dress code for men is longer than the dress code for women.
See, I want to teach my students how to function in the real world — a world that involves critical thinking skills and sound judgment.
I teach broadcasting. My young women will endure enough body shaming regardless of their wardrobe choices. I teach them how to handle themselves in professional situations and how to show grace under pressure.
I also teach them how to handle sexual harassment and unwanted advances.
Of course, they ask for fashion advice. It comes with the territory. If I want to teach professionalism, I model it, not mandate it. Mandating extremes tends to create rebellion, resentment, or shame. These are not healthy mindsets and don’t foster critical thinking or sound judgment.
We need to ask ourselves if we are teaching young women and men the right lessons. Does sending a modestly-dressed girl home for disobeying a misinformed dress code, sacrificing her education and dignity, embarrassing her in front of her peers, and needlessly sexualizing her in the process really teach values?
What about dress codes designed to ban cleavage at prom that overreach and send a modestly-dressed young woman home (who was no longer a legal minor at the time of the incident), because nature endowed her with large breasts? She showed no cleavage. She was only well-endowed. By enforcing strict standards, what are we teaching our young men by proxy?
These young men who witnessed the institutionalization of body shaming will arrive on my campus without any understanding of consent or respect for women. If you’ve read the news lately, you are well aware of the consent debate on college campuses. Rape is a problem. Sexism is a problem. When we teach men that women dress only for them (insert eye roll, ladies), we teach men that women are only for their pleasure. A girl wearing something pretty is asking for it.
We take away men’s agency and women’s agency when we reduce a large societal problem to a simple always/never formula. Humans are far more complex. Men and women are responsible for their actions and thoughts. It is a two-way street.
We imprint on the young men’s and women’s minds and hearts for life. What are we teaching them?