Welcome Back to School, Girls. And Mind Those Breasts!
On night two of the new school year, my daughters' high school principal sent out the following email: "kids" were not to show "the three Bs: No bellies. No buns. No breasts."
Lucky me. The educational authorities were on the clothing case. Our collective parenting failure to enforce proper dress fobbed off on the public school system. And yet, something was missing. Oh right, male body parts.
A well-intentioned new principal, brought in to close the achievement gap in an ethnically and economically diverse public high school in Los Angeles had instituted the sexual double standard as official school policy. Over 1,500 14 to 18-year-old girls were told, never mind aiming for top grades or a track medal, your female body is "distracting" and it must be hidden. Stupid me. I had neglected to teach my daughters about the male gaze and its female enforcers.
The principal's email got me thinking. Across America, were families receiving a similar Danger-Zone-Girls-At-Work message in their welcome back to school greetings? As this episode unfolded, I wondered, was it even possible to devise a nondiscriminatory, gender neutral dress code? Throughout history, what girls have been allowed to wear has been intimately related to what they have been allowed to achieve. But hadn't all that changed?
Apparently I wasn't the only parent at our school disturbed about the sexist dress code, because a "clarification" soon arrived:
I'd like to emphasize that the 3 Bs are for boys as well as girls, although, I admit, outside of the biology classroom, we'd more likely refer to chest rather than breast for boys … To round out our list, and prevent any further misunderstanding, we are adding a 4th B … Boxers (or any other undergarment students wear beneath their pants, shorts, or skirts) – we shouldn't see them.
Boxers? Really, madame principal? Her botched analogy reveals that she just doesn't get it. Is the word "balls" too offensive to include in an email to parents?
Obsessed with the alluring power of female flesh, the principal seemed oblivious at first to the message she sent to teenage males. Harassment and blaming the victim was exactly what transpired in one student Facebook group. The principal's "no buns, bellies, breasts" rule had stoked the destructive flames of rape culture.
To make matters worse, the administration's attempt to enforce the dress code has been positively insidious.
That first email told parents to "scrutinize our kids" before sending them to school: "Have a fashion show! Are you seeing bellies? buns? Or breasts?" It's even worse when students arrive at school. My daughter was interrupted by an assistant principal during a science lab and told to pull her shirt down. Less than a centimeter of stomach flesh was showing. Clearly that was more important than her science lesson. Inspectors stand watch at the school's entrance looking for any cleavage peak or translucent shirts. Great preparation for the national security state, but probably not for college.
Numerous academic studies have shown that merely asking girls to state their gender before standardized tests leads to lower test scores. Just imagine how many points these daily reminders of their femaleness might knock off their grades.
The Guardian's British readers might find this all so quaintly American. Most UK schools require students to wear the same modest, uncomfortable Harry Potteresque outfit. I've thought a bit about whether uniforms are a wise way to eliminate the inherent subjectivity of what's appropriate dress. The sheer ugliness might have some suppressant effect on teenage libidos, however, mandating uniforms comes with its own problems. For example, one out of four reportedly British families go into debt to pay for school uniforms. Girls' hemlines remain ever a source of dispute.
Yes, some teens cross the line – as they always have. And adults have been flying into moral panics about teens since the beginning of time. But let's set the record straight: even in Los Angeles, teen girls don't bare their breasts and buns in public. The generational uniform of the moment is a loose tank top thrown over a bra and shorts. Bras and legs and stomachs are showing. Except in rare cases, breasts and buns are not. In LA's hot climate and casual culture, where grown men pulling in six figures wear shorts and flip flops to meetings, we shouldn't be surprised that teen girls favor a comfortable, casual, and inexpensive style.
As the mother of teenagers, I can't say I love all the latest fashions. Yet what my daughters wear is at the bottom of the infinity-long to-do list of this working mother. What with organizing music lessons and college prep, limiting violent movies, while stealing time to work during America's endless summer school break, I confess, I don't scrutinize every hemline.
That's why my first reaction was relief that the school had come to my rescue. I empathize with the principal's discomfort with today's fashion and her desire to foster an environment conducive to learning. Personally, I don't allow Facebook or hats in my college classrooms. Yet "distracting" struck me as an arbitrary standard, and I decided to investigate. According to the school district's official dress code policy, "students shall not express themselves in ways that are 'obscene, libelous, or slanderous". (Nor are they allowed to display any indication of gang membership – another rule ripe for discriminatory abuse, but that's another subject.) It appeared the so-called distractions were in the eye of the beholder – the new principal.
So, what is to be done? The fundamental standard for rules about school attire must be: do they serve the educational mission of schools to develop the mind and character of students? Time adults spend enforcing dress codes is time lost to teaching. Putting school officials in charge of "scrutinizing" girls' bodies destroys trust between students and adults.
This episode has convinced me that the bigger problem is what adults see, not what teenagers wear. It has convinced me that enforcing these niggling rules is corrosive of our daughters' sense of themselves as equal and respected members of the community. It has convinced me that what's obscene isn't how girls dress, but how dress codes discriminate.
Until our society achieves real gender equality, school dress codes can never be fair. The only solution is to abolish them.