Very soon school will be back in session. And even though this will mark the official end of summer, the weather will still be hot. Really hot. Fortunately for the kids and the teachers, the school where I teach is fully air conditioned – not like it was in the 80’s when I walked the halls of the same high school. In the 80’s not only did we not have air conditioning, we were not allowed to wear shorts to school. I remember feeling sweaty. I remember feeling uncomfortable.I remember feeling irritable. But I don’t remember feeling like a victim.
No matter how badly any of us wanted to wear shorts (or ripped jeans or mini skirts or tank tops), it never would have occurred to us (boys or girls) to see these restrictions as a commentary on our dignity. We didn’t think our principals were sexualizing us because they were holding us to particular standards of modesty (even if we thought the standards were ridiculous).
We hated the dress code. We hated it, but we toughed it out.
But kids today don’t have to tough it out. Not only is the school fully air conditioned (thank God!), but students at my high school are now allowed to wear shorts, as long at they are not too short. In schools all over the country, students can now learn and socialize in total comfort. Still, when the bell rings on that first morning, and every morning after that for the rest of the year, there will be students who show up to school in violation of the dress code – short shorts, mini skirts, revealing, low-cut blouses, and t-shirts portraying products and activities inappropriate and illegal for kids.
Teachers and administrators will then be placed in the position of having to decide whether to turn a blind eye or run the risk of being called out (perhaps in a way that goes viral) as sexist or as discriminatory. Rather than support school districts in their effort to maintain a sense of decorum in the learning environment, some parents have chosen to encourage their children to buck the system.
Last year when Alexi Halket, a Toronto high school student was reprimanded for wearing a crop top to school, she launched a successful hashtag campaign calling on other young women to wear crop tops to school “in solidarity against people making women cover their bodies.” Halket argued that girls shouldn’t be sent home for dress code violations just because guys can’t control themselves. Similar protests against dress codes have been launched all over the country.
The media is applauding these young women as courageous feminists, but there considerable problems with such protests.
For starters, high school is, in part, about preparing for adulthood, and being an adult means following certain standards of dress and conduct in the workplace. This fact alone makes the idea of school dress codes, even those that stress modesty, reasonable.
Most of us don’t want our doctor or our bank teller or our children’s teachers to dress provocatively on the job. School is a student’s job. Why is it okay for kids to dress provocatively when they go to work? Shouldn’t we be teaching our students how to dress appropriately for any situation?
Of course, Helket and others would argue that the very fact that their attire is being deemed provocative is the issue. They want to dress in a revealing manner without their classmates being distracted by this. Unfortunately, we live in a sex-saturated culture. It is impossible to subject young men to a lifetime of pop music, television, movies, and advertising and then expect them not to notice scantily clad girls walking down the hall on the way to algebra.
Pre-teen boys can’t even watch a college football game on television without seeing bikini-clad models selling everything from web service to bacon cheeseburgers. The media associates nearly everything desirable in life with sexiness. It’s the American way -the shameful, sickening, American way.
The best high school administrators can do is to try to minimize negative cultural influences at school. That is why there are school dress codes – not to sexualize young girls but because they have already been sexualized by our society.
Surely there are better ways to help our daughters change the culture than encouraging them to defiantly bare their bellies. If this generation of young women would use some of their anger and energy to take on the entertainment and advertising industry, they might someday make real progress in the fight to empower women.
Another way to empower women is to help our daughters move beyond the victim mentality. I know I said that we “toughed out” our dress code in high school, but there was one day I didn’t. One day I pushed the boundaries of skirt length. And I lost. I was sent home before the end of first period to change into jeans. My parents did not punish me. They let me mouth a bit. They let me be mad. But they did not let me be a victim. I knew the rules. I broke them. No feeling sorry for myself because it didn’t go my way.
It is true that we live in a world where women are often treated unfairly. But if we teach our girls to cry foul every time there is a rule they don’t like, we are doing them a huge disservice. Worse, it’s an insult to every woman who has ever truly suffered from sexism or inequality.
The “right” of teenage girls to wear a mid-drift revealing tops to school pales in comparison with the real struggles women around the world face every day. These hashtag campaigns are more like first world problems gone viral than a real contribution to the cause of true feminism.
In his Letter to Women John Paul II warns us that an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, [must concentrate] on all areas of women’s life… beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women. Unfortunately, the sorts of theatrical campaigns that have gone on in many high schools, and will likely begin again in the coming school year, are less about dignity and more about winning. This kind of feminism does not respect women any more than does a sleazy halftime show or a trashy pop song.
Empowered by a true understanding our their uniqueness and beauty, there is no question that this generation of young women could change the culture of death into one of life and respect. Without this understanding, it looks like it will just be about getting their own way. And where is the dignity in that?