When I was in seventh grade, a teacher at my very small Quaker school once sent the boys out of the room and started talking to us girls about how we dressed. It wasn’t too far from “The Talk,” but it focused on our clothing. This teacher told us that we had to be more mindful with the way we would sit and that we had to be careful not to move our legs the wrong way because, well, you know, the boys.
“They’re at that age when they’re just waiting for you to move your legs the wrong way,” she said, laughing a little, but clearly warning us.
Most of us giggled at that idea, although I thought the image she had painted was disturbing: The boys were predatory, and because of that we were the ones tasked with the responsibility to self-consciously keep ourselves covered and folded up from their prying eyes while they allegedly scanned under the desks for the girl in the skirt with her legs apart.
I personally was never heavily policed for what I wore to school, although I have gotten “strikes” for being out of dress code (never amounting to detention). What I remember more that the strikes, however, was the awkward, revealing spotlight I felt was shining on me when, in high school, a male teacher cocked his head and asked if my skirt was the appropriate dress-code length. Because that was going to help me concentrate in class and be a good student: knowing my teacher had been looking at my legs and had then called me out in front of my peers. This was a change from middle school, where the people we were told would be objectifying us were the boys in our grade. Then it became teachers who were supposedly just enforcing the dress code.
While the dress code policing at my high school was present, it was never over the top. It was leagues away from the middle-school girls now getting punished for wearing leggings, girls forced to wear “shame suits” and the superintendent in Oklahoma who is currently taking heat for allegedly having a “bend over” dress code check for girls wearing skirts, and refers to some of the girls as “skanks.” The policing of women’s bodies, especially the policing and punishing of middle-school and high-school age girls, has always been absurd. But now the policing has become downright obscene.
School officials have become so fixated on girls’ clothing at school and whether or not they are “distractions” to boys (which is insulting and dehumanizing on its own), that they have created an environment of exacerbated self-consciousness, humiliation, sexualization and dehumanization for those students. Instead of focusing on school, they are being forced and conditioned to obsess over their appearances and objectify themselves by constantly worrying about how other people are looking at their bodies.
The so-called “predatory boys” whom I was told would be objectifying me (and I’m sure some of them are) are being erased from the issue, with teachers and deans taking their places. As authority figures in schools, they need to take it upon themselves to not only stop overly policing girls’ bodies, but to also develop holistic programs to discuss sexualization and objectification with students of all genders and how that affects their development. Forcing a girl to wear a “shame suit” when she doesn’t want to doesn’t solve the problem, it simply objectifies her body further.
READ MORE: What Do Dress Codes Say About Girls’ Bodies?
Photo courtesy of @KPRCLocal2 on Twitter.