Why Do Schools Treat Girls Who Violate The Dress Code As Little Harlots?
I spent a good deal of my junior high experience in my school’s office.
The ladies who worked behind the desk, primarily mothers themselves, would call my parents in the same tone as their eyes narrowed over my boney frame, curled temporarily on a standalone desk chair. I remember my knees falling together as the same words were repeated about “dress code,” “violating” and “respectability.”
I was most likely pulled on my way to class or spotted in the hallway. Had I reached above my head and been yanked for exposing a margin of naval flesh? Did my shorts not touch the bottom of my fingers again? I was a 12-year-old B+ student with a predilection for sun dresses, but I was always assumed by the school staff to be a seventh grade harlot for breaking the dress code.
I attended a public school free of uniforms, but a very strictly enforced dress code with many rules that are now considered pretty standard. No spaghetti straps. Tank tops had to be three fingers thick in strap width. Shorts had to end just where my index finger aligned with my thighs. No strapless dresses of any kind. All shirts had to touch the top of pants — even with your arms above your head.
I was a tall and lanky kid who outgrew clothes well into my early teens in a matter of months. What had fit me at Christmas was suddenly deemed “slutty” by March and even though I was a pretty naive 7th grader who blushed at the thought of even sitting next to a boy, each violation gave the office ladies license to berate me for allegedly seeking attention from males.
“Do you want attention from men?” I remember one of the gray-haired ladies asking me in the hallway in sixth grade.
Not really. I was bookworm who didn’t exhibit much interest in anything that wasn’t books, computer games, or sparkly headbands. I cared more about the few times a week my mother blow dried my hair straight than getting boys to look at me.
But the assumption steadied well into the eighth grade, as I was told again and again that the slightest bit of midriff or exposed shoulder would encourage people to respect me less because I was female. And I wasn’t alone. A girl in my grade reported an incident in which a fellow male student had groped her during class. When she told our English teacher what had happened, she looked over the girl’s outfit and said that if she wanted to avoid such advances, she should consider wearing more clothes. Rape culture is instilled young, it would seem.
Meanwhile, boys had a completely different dress code that basically regulated how much their pants sagged and the designs on their t-shirts — that’s it. They were free to expose arms, shoulders, everything, as long as those pants were held by a belt.
As a kid I started to wonder why the dress code came down the hardest on us girls, always aligning our clothes with some kind of licentious intention.
The need to regulate dress code on school grounds is understandable, but conditioning young girls to think that their short skirt is a invitation to boys is a dangerous mythology that doesn’t need perpetuation in our schools. Respectability, cleanliness, and presentation can all be conveyed to girls without sending them back to class convinced that they’re “sluts.”