Now that the warm weather is here, everyone is happily boxing away sweaters and breaking out their summer clothes. But as students across the country are bringing out their t-shirts and dresses, school administrators are ramping up their efforts to quash cleavage and "risquÃ©" outfits.
According to educators and even some parents, young women's outfits – their bodies, really – are too distracting for men to be expected to comport themselves with dignity and respect. It's the season of the dress code - so instead of teaching girls math or literature, schools are enforcing arbitrary and sexist rules that teach them to be ashamed of their bodies.
Take the example of a young woman in Virginia who was kicked out of her prom this month because fathers attending the event though her dress was giving rise to "impure thoughts". Clare, 17, says her dress was well within guidelines for the event's dress code - it was "fingertip length". She wrote on her sister's blog, "I even tried it on with my shoes, just to be sure."
Still, she was asked to leave – thanks to a group of ogling dads perched on a balcony above the dance floor. "I am so tired of people who abuse their power to make women feel violated and ashamed because she has an ass, or has breasts, or has long legs," she wrote
It's not just proms that make for problematic interactions for young women. Everyday school dress codes disproportionately target, shame, and punish girls – especially girls who are more developed than their peers. In 2012, students at Stuyvesant High School in New York (my old school) protested the biased implementation of the school's dress code. One student noted that the “curvier” girls were singled out – a v-neck t-shirt considered acceptable on one student was seen as absolutelyscandalous on another.
Like the fathers at Clare's prom, Stuyvesant administrators defended the sexist dress code by saying girls shorts and spaghetti strap tank tops are "distracting" to male students and teachers. This is a common theme when policing the way women dress - just last month a junior high school in Illinois banned girls wearing leggings because they're "distracting to boys".
To assuage the supposed distraction, girls caught wearing leggings are forced to put on blue school shorts over them. At Stuyvesant, dress code violators are pulled out of class and made to change into a large baggy shirt. (There are dress codes for boys, but they're not as frequently enforced and all a male student generally has to do is keep his pants up and t-shirts referencing drugs inside-out.)
As I've previously written, this sends a clear message about who the schools really care about. Because truly, what's more distracting: boys and teachers having to deal with the occasional glimpse of a girl's leg, or girls being pulled from class, humiliated and made to change before returning?
Dress codes assume that it's male students whose learning needs to be protected – and adult males who need protection from themselves. What girls need doesn't rate consideration.
Instead of mandating that girls cover their bodies or adhere to rules meant to humiliate them, perhaps men and boys who truly can't control their gaze should be forced to wear blindfolds when they're around women they otherwise would be "distracted" by.
Sound ridiculous? So is throwing large swaths of fabric over girls with the hope that boys won't notice their bodies.
We could, instead, try having some more faith in young men – they are, in fact, fully-formed humans with the capacity to exercise self control. And despite all the leggings, skirts, tight tops and various awesome female bodies throughout history on which they could rest their gazes, most boys are able to learn – and grow up – just fine.
The onus cannot be on women and girls to try to control male lust. As any woman who has walked down any street can tell you, we could all wear full sweatsuits and still get catcalled.
Besides, sending the message to students that girls' outfits provoke male behavior is a dangerous slippery slope. Clare, the young woman from Virginia, said it better than I ever could: "I'm not responsible for some perverted 45-year-old dad lusting after me." Nor should she be.