Why we need to rethink the school dress code

JACKIE O' FLASH - Bea J. Ledesma - The Philippine Star

Let me preface this by saying: I am not a bra-burning feminist. Though I have never burned bras (and often wear one), I have no problem with people who do. (“Viva le feministe!” as people with a Google Translate app like to say.)

But I am a feminist. Something many people (including plenty of women) find discombobulating.

“Why do you think women are better than men?” “Why are you so sensitive?” These are only some of the questions I often face upon revealing my feminist tendencies.

To sum up my beliefs: No, I don’t think women are better than men, I just think they should be equal. I guess you could call somebody who sees the pernicious gender gap in wage earning as something to be angry about as “sensitive.” Men continue to earn more than women at the same job, they make up more than 90 percent of the Fortune 500. (Last year, only 35 of the Fortune 1000 CEOs weren't dudes.) A recent list of Filipino dollar-billionaires named 11 captains of industries. How many of them women? A whopping zero.

In the CEO population, women are a decided minority. In the beauty industry, companies like L’Oreal are run by male CEOs. Same goes for politics. The majority of people deciding on women’s right to contraception, to choose what to do with their body, don’t even have uteri. (So why do they get to decide what I do with my body?)

But what does the dress code have to do with this, you ask, while wearily scratching your head?

Plenty, I respond (while suggesting a mild organic leave-on conditioner, if you find your scalp so itchy it regularly requires scratching.)

On a recent visit to my high school alma mater (a Catholic all-girls school in Makati) one evening, I found, tacked onto the wall by the main gate, a tarp with large letters “NO” inscribed above an illustrated list. Spaghetti-strap tank tops, asymmetrical tops, plunging necklines, crop tops, racerback shirts (a uniform for the sportswear set) and mini skirts are some of the few styles banned from the premises.

Now I recognize this is a private institution and that the school is allowed to make its own rules.

The point of this article is to argue that those rules are patently archaic, anti-feminist and persist in subscribing to the false, damaging notion that women are virtuous, fragile creatures — i.e., the weaker sex.

As feminist site Jezebel noted, “We’re sick of adults imposing arbitrary moral standards on female students’ attire for fear they’ll ‘distract’ their fellow classmates. The dress code itself isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s the reasoning behind it.”

“But rules exist for a reason,” my friend argued.

Yes, I agree. Rules like don’t drive while drunk, or don’t jaywalk serve to secure public safety.

But what does banning girls from wearing tank tops or mini skirts do? Protect them from the wayward eyes of lecherous strangers? Help them avoid being mauled or molested or, worse, raped?

That kind of thinking puts the onus of sexual assault on the victim and perpetuates rape culture. (“She was asking for it,” someone will argue, “wearing short skirts and sheer blouses with plunging necklines.”) Well, nobody asks to be assaulted. And wearing a crop top is not an invitation for molestation.

On a recent college tour, BoingBoing founder Mark Frauenfelder’s 15-year-old daughter found herself the subject of a sexist attack when a TSA officer gruffly informed her to cover up. Though the girl was garbed in a tank and leggings, she felt abused and humiliated by a person of authority who deemed her garb inappropriate. Her understandably outraged father, who runs a popular site, reported the incident online and to the TSA, who immediately responded to the outcry with an investigation.

Now, though the girl was dressed normally, what she wears doesn’t matter. Whether she was in a bra-lette and barely-there cutoffs or a T-shirt that ended just a little above her waist, exposing a sliver of her midriff, and a pair of leggings, it doesn’t matter. This is just another case of women being policed — for how they look or what they are wearing.

As Jezebel’s Katie Baker argues, “The definition of modesty is historically related to ‘womanly propriety.’ (Blergh.) It’s a gendered term that implies certain behavior is appropriate for virtuous women and certain behavior (tube tops) is not.”

For far too long, women have been judged for what they wear. As though the amount of skin bared served as signifiers for sexuality. More skin equals hyper sexual. “She’s dressed like a slut.” “She looks cheap.”

This unhealthy culture of slut shaming places a terrible burden on impressionable young girls who soon learn to believe that their bodies are objects, not theirs to be dressed as they see fit, but seen only as a recipient of the male gaze.

To a young girl, legs are just legs. She wears a pair of shorts because Manila is hot, you know, and she likes how she looks in her shorts. She sees nothing wrong with it. Then an adult, someone she looks up to and admires, informs her to cover up: she is not being proper, she is “giving the wrong impression.”

So she feels shamed. Her body is tainted. People will think badly of her.

Now how is this right?

The nuns seem to be under the assumption that ridding the dress code will result in unclothed, lawless teenagers running around in tube tops, becoming prime targets for teen pregnancy.

But studies have proved that the best way to decrease the number of teen pregnancies is sex education, not covering them up in the hopes that no penis will wantonly penetrate the layers of clothing concealing girls from neck to ankle. (But that’s just my opinion.)

Remember what I said about archaic notions?

In the Victorian age, simply baring an ankle was considered scandalous. A lady’s body was a secret, its depths to be plumbed only by her husband.

In this day and age — when we have solved the genetic code, made toilets that speak to us and play music, sent people to space for deodorant campaigns — why do we subscribe to the same Victorian ideas?

At a boy’s school, boys are not told to cover up their arms or lengthen their hems. They expose their bodies with no threat of disapproval. If they wear something wrong, people will only cluck their tongues and say, “Boys will be boys.”

But a girl? “Shame on her.”

To parents reading this, think about how your children dress. Do you instill the same rules of dress on your daughter as you do your son? Are you as concerned with the length of his shorts, the hem of his shirt? Do you tell him to button up his shirt the way you would a daughter? Recognizing the way we approach dress as a gendered act is the first step towards changing learned behavior.

Choosing what to wear is one of the ways we express our agency. In the simple act of selecting her wardrobe for the day, a girl is telling the world: This is what I like, this is what I feel comfortable in, this is what makes me feel good about myself.

By denying her this right to choose, to exercise her agency as a person, we deny her fundamental right to be.

“You are not what you wear,” my friend responded.

True, but the act of choosing what to wear — how we present ourselves to the world — is an undeniable act of self.

By telling a girl to cover up, to limit her choices, we are refusing to grant her agency. We equate her body with her value. We equate her virtue with her worth as a person.

When — newsflash! — in reality, a girl is more than the sum of her parts. She is more than her exposed limbs, her clothing, her image.

Take this exercise as an example: a man exposes his body in a tight shirt and trousers. People’s impression: Those are some tight pants.

A woman does the same. People’s impression: She is vain. She is slutty. She is a man-eating cow who wants to steal your husband.

There’s something wrong with this picture. There’s something wrong with this behavior.

It’s 2013, people. Let’s change the way we think. And let it start with abolishing this antiquated systemic misogyny that is the dress code.

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Thoughts? Tweet us at @ItsOnYStyle.










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