It must be the warmer weather and its resultant skimpier clothing: one of several issues about which the Internet’s think piece-industrial complex has been especially vocal lately is school dress codes. Here, as elsewhere, America seems to be liberalizing, and teenagers in public schools have begun fighting back against repressive school administrations and the creepy policies that regulate young women’s fashion choices.
In theory, school dress codes hold no bias against one gender or the other: boys and girls equally are barred from wearing short shorts and spaghetti straps—except that boys don’t wear these items anyway, so in the vast majority of cases, the only ones affected by the rules are girls, and girls tend to be the ones whom principals sporadically send home for their “inappropriate attire.”
What would happen if we got rid of school dress codes? In theory, chaos would ensue: naked students, T-shirts emblazoned with swastikas. In reality, probably nothing much would occur, which is why we have to invent reasons to justify our crop-top bans.
Over the years, the most commonly cited reason has been that girls who bare an excess of skin in school pose a “sexual distraction” to the boys in the classroom. This reason is so awful that it’s sort of amazing that it took us this long to realize how disgusting it was—and it’s even more amazing that some people still don’t get it.
Schools whose prudish dress codes are guided by the abovementioned principle have, paradoxically, institutionalized the sexualization of girls’ bodies: their rules confirm the notion that a girl’s exposed body means sex. Thus, they legitimize the objectifying gaze of the boys who, according to school administrators, will be physically unable to prevent themselves from leering if they catch a glimpse of shoulder or thigh.
There is no expectation here that boys should learn to control their impulses and to respect women’s autonomy; rather, the onus lies upon the girls, who must learn to cover themselves so as not to create temptation or else accept the consequences. Yet different boys—and different men—will inevitably have different tastes, and one can imagine that it’s not always easy to know which outfits will be especially enticing.
In this way, girls are deprived of ownership of themselves (presumably they can look forward to a lifetime of being told by men when to cover up and, correspondingly, when to uncover) and ownership of their schools, as they forfeit their places in the classroom to protect their male classmates from their “distracting” bodies: every time a high school principal sends a girl home, he makes known whose education he values and whose he doesn’t.
The arguments that I’ve just attempted to articulate form the basis of most social media protests against dress codes and school-sponsored slut-shaming. But there’s also a contrary point of view—it always appears in the comments section—that begins by noting that having to endure a few mild fashion restrictions during school hours isn’t exactly the most severe hardship in the world.
It then proclaims its support for school dress codes—commenters who acknowledge that women’s bodies are not dirty or offensive still believe that girls need to be taught how to dress because most workplaces have dress codes, and school is meant to prepare students for their future careers: it makes sense for school administrators to prohibit outfits that would likewise be forbidden in the office.
The apparent validity (or lack thereof) of this pragmatic outlook may depend on your beliefs about what the purpose of an education is and, more broadly, on your sense of what most human beings are capable of.
There are certain people for whom “education” is virtually synonymous with “career-training.” For them, the role of teachers is to groom young people for the workforce. These people usually believe that the humanities departments at public universities deserve little funding and that radical academic fields such as “Gender Studies,” “African-American Studies,” and “English” shouldn’t exist at all, since they tend to produce unemployable graduates. These people also have a basic confidence in the correctness of contemporary American capitalism: our role is not to criticize it but to contribute to it.
It would do no good to suggest to these people that our public schools have no obligation to adopt the mores of capitalist culture as though they embodied a “default” way of life into which students will necessarily proceed after graduation. Rather, schools have an obligation to do the opposite—that is, to teach critical thinking, which is impossible unless students understand their own worldview as a history-contingent phenomenon whose founding assumptions are no less assailable than those of the Romans.
In my own opinion, it’s not the role of schools to enforce the codes of American society’s dominant class (which pays women $0.77 for every dollar men make) so as to prepare students for an adulthood in thrall to those same codes.
You may regard this as an idealistic viewpoint. You may know a lot more about education than I do. You may have seen public high schools where students can barely recite the alphabet or do elementary arithmetic. You may have decided that all we can realistically do for these particular students now is teach them to dress in such a way that they might someday get hired for a respectable job and have a decent life.
Most people, after all, will not have the capacity to overturn “the system,” or even to survive outside it. To spend one’s time “questioning” it is the domain of the privileged, isn’t it?
Well, I would argue that attempting to instill an ability to interrogate Western dress codes—or anything else—would in no way hinder a student’s future capacity to abide by those same codes for professional reasons, if she should want to. She deserves this, whatever you may think of her: the only other option may be to instill an incomprehensible shame—a vague sense that her body is “wrong.”