Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dress Codes

                Interestingly, and gratefully, my children are helping me slay my prejudices.  Let me begin by saying I am a liberal, open-minded person who prides myself on being progressive and accepting of alternate beliefs.  But I met my match when it came to discussions about dress codes.  You see, I identify with the ‘old-timers’ who want to regulate the garments that students wear to school.  I feel compelled to agree that revealing clothing is inappropriate in the school setting. 

But my kids (mainly my son) have made the effort to explain an alternate viewpoint to me. That maybe, just maybe, the whole ‘modesty’ ideal is simply based on shame. Maybe the idea that what a woman (or girl) wears has NO bearing on ANYTHING other than being a vehicle of self-expression, or as a way to be comfortable, or as a reflection of who they see themselves to be. My kids have endeavored to show me that the clothing a woman chooses, no matter how skimpy or small, is NOT an excuse for inappropriate behavior.  Moreover, it is very possible that by holding girls to different dress codes than boys, that we are perpetuating gender inequality and fueling the prejudice against women. 

Admittedly, it has been hard for me to totally accept this idea.  But the more I read, and the more I discuss it with my children and other young people, I’ve begun to understand their perspective.  I’ve begun to understand that my fears – that society’s fears – fuel the sexism behind dress codes and perpetuate a culture that objectifies women.  Perhaps every time we suggest that a female is dressing provocatively we are actually supporting and growing a culture of victim blaming.

As a very young person (maybe eight?), I had an awful experience swimming at a lake.  My baby-sitter had taken my brother and me to go swimming at a resort – such a treat for children growing up in raining Washington State! While the baby-sitter stayed with my brother, I went in to the girls’ bathroom to change into my swimming suit – which happened to be a bikini.  Now, I have no recollection of buying the swim suit, or if I wanted a two-piece as opposed to a one-piece.  Honestly, I lived in WA state….I didn’t do a lot of swimming. For all I know, it was a hand-me-down.

After donning my suit, as I walked to meet my baby-sitter and brother, two older boys (maybe 14-15?) blocked my path, stopping me. Leering, one of the boys said, “I’ll give you 5 bucks for a f*ck”.  Um, I didn’t even know what he meant. I was eight!  But what I DID know is he creeped me out and I felt deeply ashamed.  I immediately felt like I had done something wrong.  

Of course, the reality of the situation is that the boy was crass, inappropriate, and abusive to a young girl.  But at eight, with no adult to tell me otherwise, I blamed myself. In fact, I was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened. Then I carried that experience with me, believing I needed to protect myself. Believing my clothing choices could control the inappropriate actions of the people around me.  Looking back I understand the situation much differently. Yet, even now, I still cling to the belief that modest dress is a protection.  

That’s the problem.  Why are we expecting women to protect themselves from men? Why are we still insisting that women are somehow culpable for inappropriate sexual comments or advances? Why are we still insinuating that if only she dressed like ‘a nice girl’ this wouldn’t have happened? Why are we holding female students to different standards than male students?  Why are we not addressing the REAL problem – the fact that as a society, as a culture, we still undervalue, we still undermine, we still blame women.  

Europe as a whole has a much more relaxed view on sexuality and dress.  Nudity is far more accepted, as are ‘diminished’ clothing choices.  The antiquated ideas in the USA about appropriate dress have not improved our country’s incidence of rape. Researchers found that an average of 7.5 percent of women worldwide REPORT sexual assault in their lifetimes. In the USA that figure is higher:  13% (  Clearly, covering up doesn’t stave off criminal behavior.

The other aspect to this discussion revolves around sexual power.  We continually throw out the images of women as sexually powerful; scantily clad and dominating – on the stage, on the screen, in the tabloids.  We are fed this imagery at an early age, from cartoons, in children’s programming (, movies, and more.  If as a society we are continually canonizing women as beautiful, powerful, sexual creatures, how can we possibly also blame them for having those qualities?  What damage are we doing to our young people by sending these mixed messages? 

I still dress modestly myself and I still cringe at some of the clothing choices my 20 year old daughter makes.  I admit to passing judgment on many of the outfits I see girls wearing at my children’s school. But I’m working on it.  I’m working on shifting my perception from judgment based on shame and blame.  I’m working on seeing what the younger generation is much more adept at seeing: that men and women, girls and boys, are equally powerful and culpable, and that no amount of undress justifies inappropriate behavior. That we all have bodies…believe it or not, they are all mostly the same. Girl parts are girl parts, and boy parts are boy parts.  Ho hum.  Let’s move on.

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