#4 – Why We’re Ashamed of Our Bodies

“Your legs are gross and nobody wants to look at them. Cover them up.”

That’s what I hear when you tell me to wear longer shorts. That’s what I hear when you tell me that someone complained, because they were offended. That day, I walked out of school with my backpack slung low enough to cover my shorts. That night, I took off that adorable, flattering pair of shorts and never put them back on.

Simon Sinek claims that “every single person… on the planet knows what they do, 100%. Some know how they do it… very very few know why they do what they do.” He believes that the ones who succeed are the ones who know why. Well, I know why. The pair of shorts, crumpled in the back of my drawer for four months, is the reason. 

The success stories around this issue all have one thing in common; these people know why. After getting reprimanded by her school principal for wearing a shirt that “looked too much like a sports bra,” a girl from Toronto encouraged the girls at her school to wear crop tops to protest the vague, unfair dress code that promotes double-standards, sexism and rape culture. She assembled over 200 students, male and female, to participate, and even though many had likely never been affected by the dress code, she gained sufficient support to create change. Her experience demonstrated the injustices and subjectivity of the rules, and she had a strong desire to influence it. Originally, the principal of the school was strongly opposed to her protest, but none of the students sided with him, despite his superior position. Sinek justifies this when he explains that “there are leaders and then there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority. But those who lead, inspire us.” The principal may be a leader, but the girl is the one who leads. She inspired the kids at her school and won their support, not from a position of authority, but because she had a desire – no, a need – for change. 

Similarly, an individual organized a protest at their school, where people of all genders wore dresses. They had never personally had an encounter with the dress code, but witnessing a girl get sent home for wearing a minimally revealing dress made them extremely upset. This protest succeeded for the same reasons the previous one succeeded, even though the actual issue being protested was of less importance to the leader than its connotations. And to be honest, most of the participants probably didn’t wear dresses so they could reduce dress code restrictions. They didn’t wear dresses to show support for the person organizing the protest, as “we follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.” They wore dresses to show off their bodies. They wore dresses to prove that guys can wear dresses too. They wore dresses to negate the concept that “she was asking for it.” They wore dresses to insist that women have just as much right as men to an education. They wore dresses because they wanted to.

I want to change the dress code. I want restrictions to apply to all genders. I want each rule to be specific, so we take subjectivity out of the equation. I want the dress code, however strict or lenient, to be enforced equally among all genders and body types. But how? First we need to educate. We must spread information about the detrimental effects on girls, boys, and society. Then we have to present the changes we intend to make, and outline how the changes will improve cultural issues such as rape, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and violence against women & the LGBT community. You don’t need to be passionate about the dress code specifically to make a dramatic change. You have to hate the issues that the dress code contributes to, and want to improve the inequalities and violence in our culture. In other words, changing the dress code isn’t about changing the dress code. It’s about fixing the injustices in the world.

The dress code is such a tiny, seemingly meaningless topic. No one really cares about a few restrictions that most likely never impact your life, but we witness protest after protest in schools across the country. Why would people get so angry that they risk a tainted transcript, punishment, and conflict between them and the adults around them, all for an issue that doesn’t really bother them? It’s because the dress code is more than a set of rules. The dress code is indicative of sexism, heteronormativity, fat shaming and rape culture. By fighting the dress code, we’re fighting for women’s rights. We’re fighting for equality. We’re fighting for respect. We’re fighting for safety. We’re fighting for acceptance. We’re fighting for body positivity. We’re fighting to show young people that they have the right to express themselves. We’re fighting to show them it’s okay to take up space and flaunt their bodies. We’re fighting so they will love themselves.

Anna Buteau

6 Responses to “#4 – Why We’re Ashamed of Our Bodies

  • Anna,

    Thought this might interest you: It’s an article from the student newspaper at BHS about a dress code incident that happened there recently: http://bhsregister.com/dress-code-incident-raises-concern/

    Also, if you are focusing in on dress code as your topic, have you looked at why they exist and where they came from? This is the history teacher in me coming out, but I think some historical context on dress codes would help in fully understanding and, subsequently, taking more effective action. Are there valid reasons dress codes were implemented in the past? Do those valid reasons still exist today or, as sometimes happens in education, are dress codes there because “we’ve always had them, so why change”?

    Erik

    • Hi Erik, thank you for sharing this link! The BHS student’s account resembles many I’ve heard (and experienced) in Middlebury High School, especially in terms of unfair enforcement and a generally vague statement in the handbook.

      As for the history of dress codes, they first emerged centuries ago to distinguish social classes. For instance, only the emperor could wear yellow in China, and poor Europeans weren’t permitted to wear bright colors or outfits that drew attention to them. The first dress code in school was put in place in a Des Moines school in 1969, in response to the court case Tinker v. Des Moines School District. A few students had worn black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, and got suspended for disrupting the classroom environment, despite the entirely silent, peaceful nature of their protest. The court decided (with a slim majority) that schools could limit the student’s freedom of expression if there is concern that the outfit could disrupt the environment or violate the rights of others. Following this case, official dress codes became present in most public high schools, with state law protecting the school’s right to enforce them.

      What this tells me is that dress codes were initially established so articles of clothing with offensive language/pictures wouldn’t be worn, and it had nothing to do with the desire to censor female bodies. However, gender roles and sexism worked their way into the concept, creating the unfair, restrictive dress codes that exist in many schools today.

      As a sidenote, private schools have been enforcing strict dress codes for all genders since their beginnings. In the first years, the restrictions in place, such as the prohibition of makeup, the requirement of boys to wear neckties, and the requirement of girls to wear stockings, seem outrageous to us now. Over time, the codes became increasingly lenient, although many private schools still require their students to wear uniforms. Throughout history in general, we observe a similar trend in the social standards for dress. This pattern suggests that dress codes, both official and cultural, will continue to decrease in importance/restrictiveness over time. Therefore, we can also assume that the conflict that has always arisen between the younger and older generations around this topic will continue as well.

  • andrea lunsford
    4 years ago

    Dear Anna

    thanks for blog #4, which I’ve read with great interest. I think this topic is a BIG and important one, and it’s one that’s meaningful to you and to everyone who has ever endured biting comments about clothing or body. Such comments sting, and we carry them with us for a long, long time. I take your point that dress codes should be applied equally to all — that’s crucial. And I also take your point about leadership and leading requiring inspiration and dedication. What I wasn’t completely clear on is the relationship you see between dress codes and hurtful comments. How are the two logically related? I think making that relationship explicit would be a good move. In the meantime, thanks for your very astute thoughts. All the best!

    • Hi Andrea, thank you for your comments! I assume that when you reference the link between the dress code and hurtful comments, you mean the way I opened the piece. When the administration tells me that I need to cover up my body, I feel like it’s a personal insult to my body. I know it may be overreacting on my part, but by restricting the way I dress, but not someone who’s shorter/skinnier etc., I feel like they’re saying that other people can wear a certain article of clothing, but I can’t because my body isn’t right for it, or good enough. They say it’s because what I’m wearing is offensive, which I take to mean that people are offended or grossed out when they see me. This is, of course, a personal reaction, that wouldn’t apply to everyone in the situation, but enough people that I’ve talked to have responded to this type of incident in the same way I have. I don’t know if I’m being clear enough…?

      While writing this response, I remembered an article I read on Refinery29 about the public’s perception on people, based on body type. It focused on the negative light in which plus size women are seen, proving this idea through a word association procedure. The vast majority associated, consciously or unconsciously, negative adjectives such as “lazy, embarrassing, ugly, unhealthy, sloppy and loser” with larger people, and antonyms for those words with smaller people. However, there was one exception: one plus size woman received more positive adjectives. Not so coincidentally, she was substantially more covered up than the other plus size women in the experiment. As the article concluded, “it seems the more these bodies are obscured or shaped by clothing, the more willing we are to accept them.” Even people who work on body positivity have these subconscious beliefs, drilled into them by society and the media, and the dress code promotes these ideas when enforced in the unfortunate pattern that it is.

      That was kind of an unrelated tangent… Sorry! I just get really worked up about this… 🙂

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  • Courtney Krahn
    4 years ago

    Hi Anna,
    It was nice to chat with you Sunday while we sat atop Mt. Philo. When I got home, I saw this front page article in the Free Press, and I thought immediately of you. I’m sending it in case you missed it:
    http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/2016/10/08/burlington-students-question-dress-code-enforcement/91685016/

    Courtney

    • Hi Courtney, thank you so much for sharing this link! It’s really interesting to see how different schools are approaching this issue. So far in my reading, I’ve found many schools where students have protested, and the administration claims to be “making progress on a new dress code,” but none have actually made any changes. The lack of actual, concrete progress concerns me, and that’s where I hope to change things. Thank you again!

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