Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Dress code bias

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It's back-to-school time, and for many it is back to blaming girls for the bad behavior of boys. Last week, two news stories out of Texas demonstrated the institutional misogyny that girls often deal with in school. The first was a viral photo of a quote that read, "The more you act like a lady, the more he'll act like a gentleman." This gem, attributed to Sydney Biddle Barrows, also known as the "Mayflower Madam," was painted, of all places, above the lockers in a Houston middle school. The second was a video shown to the entire student body of a Flower Mound High School that featured teenage girls walking around the school wearing short shorts set to M.I.A's song "Bad Girls." The video ended with the girls being punished and forced to chant, "I will not wear short shorts."

In both cases, the schools backtracked and issued apologies. But why did the administrators at these schools think this was OK to begin with? Turns out, the "act like a lady" quote had been on the wall for five years before being taken down. The short shorts video was played to over 3,000 students and was only seen as a problem after two senior girls posted it to Twitter pointing out that no boys were shown violating the dress code and that the video actually over-sexualized the young women with close ups of their legs while the lyrics "Live fast, die young, Bad girls do it well" played in the background.

I was a pretty modest dresser as a teen. My mom forbade anything she deemed "too skimpy," which included bikinis, midriff shirts and anything low-cut. I remember being so excited to wear a new outfit to school that consisted of a pair of high-waisted, long floral shorts (hey, it was the early 1990s) with a coordinating shirt. When my teacher asked a question, I raised my hand as I often did when I knew the answer (imagine Hermione Granger in "Harry Potter," only less charming). Instead of being called on to answer the question, I was sent to the principal's office because a sliver of forbidden skin showed at my waistband when my hand shot up. I came back to class wearing a T-shirt I kept in my gym locker. My carefully planned outfit was ruined. The shame I felt over the incident and knowing it could have been avoided if I had not been so eager to show off my smarts still sticks with me today. What was confusing was that every Friday during football season, I could wear my cheerleading uniform to school with its short skirt and no one said anything.

Thankfully, dress codes do seem to be, at least on paper, becoming more gender neutral in order to avoid accusations of discrimination. That doesn't mean there isn't discrimination in the enforcement. Girls are too often treated as temptresses who must have their clothing choices closely monitored to prevent them from distracting the boys from their schoolwork. They are sirens, existing to wreak havoc on the poor male students. And woe to the girls who are more endowed and are often limited to only wearing high-neck shirts in order to avoid showing the smallest bit of cleavage.

You know what is distracting? Construction noise nearby, being hungry in class, a stray dog wandering into the classroom or another student continuously talking. Those are distractions. A girl's clothes and her body are not. But we tell boys they are. And with quotes like the one in the Houston school, we tell girls they deserve what they get if they aren't well behaved. We constantly tell young women that they bear the burden for keeping the boys on their best behavior. If they show too much of their bodies, then boys cannot pay attention. If they are forward or loud or saucy, then it is their fault if they are not treated with respect. These attitudes let boys off the hook and teach them they can treat "bad girls" poorly.

As I've aged, I've also realized how unsettling it is that some grown men seem all too happy to police teenage girls' clothing and behavior. Knowing your male teacher is watching to see if any unauthorized skin shows while you participate in classroom activities is something that is likely to be incredibly distracting to a young girl and is just outright creepy. As the school year goes on, I'm sure we will see more and more of these dress-code stories hitting the news until it reaches a crescendo around prom time. I'm not sure how we can top last year's "modesty ponchos" that a Michigan school planned to hand out to girls at prom deemed to be showing too much skin. Hopefully, someday we will all be so enlightened that we can worry less about what girls are wearing and worry more about whether they are provided the same opportunities to succeed as are boys.

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