“You’re not going out dressed like that!”
“What mother would let her child wear such a short skirt?”
Think about it: How often do we police girls’ bodies? Recent talk of school dress codes reveals that it happens an awful lot, and for some confused reasons.
After a New Jersey middle school banned strapless dresses from a school dance, more schools have been making headlines with various clothing bans and restrictions. Some of these bans focus on attire for dances while others target daily wear such as yoga pants and low-cut tops. All, however, focus only on girls’ clothing, and most of these restrictions are put in place to avoid “distracting” other students (i.e. the boys).
The concern for overly exposed young bodies may be well-intentioned. With society fetishizing girls at younger and younger ages, girls are instructed to self-objectify and see themselves as sexual objects, something to be looked at. A laundry list of problems can come from obsessing over one’s appearance: eating disorders, depression, low self-worth. Who wouldn’t want to spare her daughter from these struggles?
But these dress codes fall short of being legitimately helpful. What we fail to consider when enforcing restrictions on skirt-length and the tightness of pants is the girls themselves—not just their clothes, but their thoughts, emotions, budding sexuality and self-image.
Instead, these restrictions are executed with distracted boys in mind, casting girls as inherent sexual threats needing to be tamed. Dress restrictions in schools contribute to the very problem they aim to solve: the objectification of young girls. When you tell a girl what to wear (or force her to cover up with an oversized T-shirt), you control her body. When you control a girl’s body—even if it is ostensibly for her “own good”—you take away her agency. You tell her that her body is not her own.
When you deem a girl’s dress “inappropriate,” you’re also telling her, “Because your body may distract boys, your body is inappropriate. Cover it up.” You recontextualize her body; she now exists through the male gaze.
Says Soraya Chemaly in The Huffington Post,
What is a girl supposed to think in the morning when she wakes up and tries to decide what to wear to school? They aren’t idiots. The logical conclusion of the “distracting” issue is, “Will I turn someone on if I wear this?” Now who is doing the sexualizing? My daughters would never have thought these things without the help of their school.
Suddenly, offensive hypersexuality isn’t just something a girl sees in music videos or magazines: It’s embodied in her, and her dress-coded school reminds her of that every day.
So what about those distracted young boys? Where do they come in? By barring particular outfits from school, dress codes help boys identify and objectify “inappropriate” girls and women. Girls who violate dress codes are violating rules, and girls who violate rules are bad. Bad girls can be desirable and sexy, but they don’t necessarily deserve respect (even from other girls).
And where respect is absent, objectification is easy. In her guide to self-objectification, Caroline Heldman explains how sexually objectified women are dehumanized and viewed as “less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.” Those who are dehumanized may be mistreated and made to feel inadequate. And if poor self-image is linked with objectification, it isn’t hard to see that this cycle feeds itself: Those who are objectified by others are treated as less than human, and in understanding themselves as less than human may self-objectify.
Asking girls to cover up is a Band-Aid solution to far more socially ingrained problems such as general misogyny and rape culture. As long as a girl or woman is always sexualized, it won’t matter how much she covers up—she’ll still be faulted for her inappropriate behavior.
It’s unfair to expect a young girl to understand the full implications of her body—implications put in place by an all-too-often misogynistic society—and punish her for not knowing better. A girl needs empowerment, not more complications in her relationship with her body. Jada Pinkett Smith had the right idea when asked why she would “let” her daughter Willow shave her head:
This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power, or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, and her mind are her domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair … even little girls have the right to own themselves.
Photograph credited to Lindsay Kamikawa via SanClemente Patch