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The problem with dress codes

The internet has been buzzing recently with the controversy regarding a middle school in Evanston, Ill. that imposed a set of addendums to its dress code. The new policy bans girls from wearing leggings and yoga pants because such tight-fitting clothes are “too distracting” to their male peers. The girls, in retaliation, picketed their school, claiming that the administration was “slut shaming.”

At most schools without uniforms, dress codes have been in place for decades at most schools without uniforms, but there’s a very noticeable disparity among the kinds of clothes disallowed for boys and the kinds of clothes disallowed for girls. There’s no national standard, but a quick Googling of the greater Princeton area’s various high school dress codes provided the following general outlines for all students: no bare backs, no spaghetti strap tops, no exposed stomachs, no short shorts, no short dresses/skirts and no drug/gang-related paraphernalia.

Save for the very last one, all the above guidelines are meant to police girls, rather than boys. If the idea is to prevent students from distracting other students in a sexual way, then shouldn’t boys be prevented from wearing sleeveless or tight shirts, lest their biceps or toned musculature prevent a girl (or boy) from finishing her history test in a timely manner? Shouldn’t boys be prevented from wearing skinny jeans because they — in the same vein as yoga pants — leave too little to the hormonal teenage imagination?

The thing is, women are policed so that they are no longer distracting to men, while men, if policed at all, are never told to change for the benefit of the opposite sex. The most prominent example that comes to mind when thinking of male-specific supplements to dress codes relates to sagging pants, an urban trend where pants are worn low to expose many inches worth of boxers. Efforts to ban these practices have never once mentioned how visible boxers would tortuously distract nearby females. Rather, they focus on visible underwear being inappropriate for a learning or work environment.

The rationale behind certain points in a dress code might not seem as important compared to the ultimate result of what is and what isn’t allowed. However, the very idea that women’s bodies are innately sexual — even as 12- or 13-year-old middle school students — is what sets the stage for rape culture and slut shaming later on in life.  The dress code policy implies that these young, barely pubescent girls are tempting their male peers by simply standing around in tight clothing. It reaffirms the stale ideal that men are born lecherous and unable to control themselves. Not only that, but it presents this supposed inherent male characteristic as okay. What needs to change, according to these dress codes, isn’t the male gaze, but rather the women upon whom the male gaze falls.

This isn’t too far a throw from the tenets of rape culture, which dictate that rape is the fault of the victim, that short skirts and vampy makeup open the door for sexual assault at no fault of the rapist.

Problematic lines of thinking are reinforced and compound into larger problems when they are seeded at such an early age. There’s a relatively quick fix, though: phrase dress codes so that they don’t seem to prize the protection of the sensitive male libido over the objectification of women’s bodies.

It’s a long shot to suggest that middle school administrations allow girls to wear whatever they want. Though it would allow girls autonomy over their own bodies, it’s highly impractical.  There are things inappropriate to wear in a learning environment, just as there are things inappropriate to wear to a job in a laboratory or to an interview on Wall Street or to a beach wedding. Rather, changing the phrasing of these dress codes to reflect the environment rather than the male members of it would solve a large part of the problem. The idea is to stop portraying girls and their bodies as innately sexual, especially at such a young age.

Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at shruthid@princeton.edu.

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