Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri legislatures are making “handmaid” a verb, an action taken upon any and all women, whether or not of reproductive age or inclination. This action sends the message to us women that our whole selves are just a synecdoche, a decrescendo of body parts, pudenda, or what my son and daughter used to call “particulars.” Another blog post will explore ways to think of men’s whole selves as just their sperm, but today’s treats the unequal burden of school dress codes on girl students.
Our local county school system has made “dress code” a verb, dress-coding high-school girls left and right for the clothes they choose to wear or have available to wear. Some girls get dress-coded, and others don’t, even if they’re wearing the same clothes or same exact styles as the ones who do. Some girls don’t get dress-coded for a specific outfit four weeks in a row, but then do get dress-coded for that same outfit the fifth week. Some girls attend formal conversations about the dress code held at school. They are wearing clothes that the dress code prohibits. The administrators do not dress-code them or make any mention of it. Most high-school students have a certain set of styles available to them, and those styles also do not conform to dress code. Many students cannot afford one set of clothes for weekend activities and an entirely different set for the school week.
Also, it’s hot. We sometimes have ten days in a row of hot, humid weather in February or March, and very often we have this weather in August, September, October, March, April, and May. Schools have air-conditioning, but it doesn’t always work. It is just hot. Dress codes that mandate shorts and skirts to “mid-thigh range” are impossible to obey, unless Target, American Eagle, JCPenney, and any other number of stores completely overhaul their inventory. “Mid-thigh” also points all interested parties’ attention to one region—the mid-thigh. As a friend recently pointed out, school should point everyone’s attention to one region—the brain.
And the boys? They’re wearing whatever the hell they want and watching their girl classmates’ bodies get scrutinized, criticized, taxonomized, and harassed by adult teachers and administrators. These role models teach the students that girls’ bodies define them, thus making the girls objects, non-human, subject to whatever other decisions are to be made for and about them, not by or with them. Some girls are sent home to change and some are given others’ clothes to change into. Some girls are punished with after-school detention, and some with in-school suspension. These girls who dare to be themselves are labeled “defiant,” a loaded and gendered term in the context of school rules, hierarchies, and power systems.
This is the path to the Handmaid’s Tale. If a girl is just her body, then we forget that she has a brain and a skill set and an opinion and her own way of existing in the world. This objectification creates a shorter path from real, live, full-person girl to just body to state-controlled incubator, as we’re seeing in various states and on way too many courts in the land.
Furthermore, if we can’t even eliminate a binary gender-based boy/girl dress code, how will we teach students to embrace a full range of gender expression, thus creating a welcoming environment for all students who spend the day in the public school environment?
When I was in ninth grade (first year of high school), my mother made me wear a dress or a skirt every day. I was not a big fan of dresses or skirts, preferring to wear athletic clothing so that I could play pick-up basketball at lunchtime and make a quick change into practice clothes for after-school sports. My mother had the idea that you should honor the school day by wearing “proper” clothing, and so I wore a dress or skirt most days of ninth grade. I walked to school, carrying a book bag, instrument, and sports bag, and I climbed over a brick wall at the beginning of my walk to shorten the trek by at least a mile. Looking back, I can’t imagine my clothing was in a proper state most days by the time I got to school. In the meantime, this was the early ‘80’s, and my classmates were wearing the standard uniform of blue jeans and black concert t-shirts (winter) or shorts and black concert t-shirts (spring). My attire was decidedly impractical and uncool, but I did what my mother said.
I did what my mother said for one year, and then I didn’t. Obedience was silly and impractical. She knew that, too. I was 15 and had my own tastes and personality and hobbies, and I needed to wear the clothing that expressed all of that. I also had been buying my own clothes since I was 12, and it was time to buy clothes that I wanted to buy. By that point, my mother got the point. There was no need for me to stage a rebellion or to outline a case. It was just time for me to wear the clothing that made sense for the weather and my daily trajectory and activities.
I don’t remember that my school had a dress code, and I don’t remember any of us being scrutinized by teachers or administrators for the clothes we chose to wear. Admittedly, this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; I just don’t remember our feeling bound by a dress code or, by extrapolation, of enforcement of a dress code. In other words, we were free to wear what was comfortable, to express ourselves through our clothing (or not to, if that was our preference). I could be the nerd in the dress for a whole year, and then I could be the tomboy in the gym shorts the next year. It didn’t matter.
It does not matter whether I like or do not like the fashions young people, and especially school-aged girls, choose to wear. What matters is that each and every person has fair and equal access to educational opportunities and success, with no undue burden placed on any gender.
When I go to my daughter’s sporting events, a disembodied voice from the press box commands the audience to rise for the National Anthem and for the gentlemen to remove their caps. I don’t consider myself a gentleman, and so I don’t remove my cap, which I’m wearing to keep the setting sun out of my eyes as the game begins. I believe this is the only instance in which the boys and men are being asked to obey a dress code element that the girls and women are not—but it’s only due to the gendered assumption that only one gender wears baseball caps.
I believe, too, that women administrators (and maybe teachers) often bear the extra burden of enforcing dress codes because dress codes often make men afraid to have to look at or to be caught looking at adolescent girls’ bodies. All of it is weirdly sexualizing, creepy, and unnecessary.
This 2016 Forbes Magazine article looks at the history of dress codes, and therefore the history of gender bias through clothing impositions, stating that: “In ancient Sparta, Athens and many other Greek city states from around the 4th century BCE, there was an appointed group of magistrates called the γυναικονόμοι (“controllers of women”).” You can guess where the rest of the paragraph will take you. This 2014 NPR piece examines the inconsistent nature of public school dress codes, as well as the pervasive gender bias in the codes themselves. NPR also links to the National Center for Transgender Equality site as a resource for schools to be more inclusive in their dress codes. In 2015, the ACLU of Idaho sent out a legal memo, which “notes that gender stereotyping dress standards can violate the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, federal laws including Title IX, and the Idaho Human Rights Act. Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. and State Constitution also prohibit this type of discrimination.” (See more ACLU dress code information here; see also this interesting and thorough 2015 piece from The Atlantic.) This 2016 Newsweek article signals the dangers of mandating what women employees must wear or must not wear.
Let’s stop looking mid-thigh and start going full-brain. In summary, a poem:
Parts is Parts
Women are like Perdue chickens,
born whole, then harvested for our parts,
the breast meat, the drumsticks, the thigh;
no head left, no brain there.
We’re like Perdue chickens,
bred for service,