Dress codes. Body shaming. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand. This isn't a new thing. But now people are speaking out. Now we are all becoming more aware of the effects and implications. Parents and students are pushing back. Wielding the long reaching arm of social media, they are finally being heard.
I've written about this before, but yesterday I got a front row seat.
I live in a small town with two high schools. I live in a very tight knit master planned community, complete with a community FaceBook page. Serving as a community forum, the page keeps residents up to date on goings ons and is a venue to discuss community issues. It is often the tales of errant dog piles and speeding drivers that get the natives worked up. Yesterday, it was the notice about a flyer from our neighboring high school. And I became one of the natives who was lit up.
The flyer was promoting a homecoming dance. At the bottom they specified the attire to be worn. Not formal. Ok. That's helpful. Leave something to the imagination. Hmmm... Then there was this little gem: Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman, and loose enough to show you're a lady.- Edith Head.
Some parents were none too happy about that last little bit. You see, it speaks specifically to girls and the way they dress. It speaks to a problem that we have in our culture of talking to young women about their bodies as if they are something to be ashamed of.
That statement swiftly puts the burden on the girls to find the delicate balance between dressing for fun and being labelled a slut.
The statement was a quote from Edith Head's memoir. An accomplished fashion designer, she penned her life's story in 1959. This school flyer was not the first time I'd heard Ms. Head's particular brand of fashion wisdom. It's cheeky and sassy. I get the appeal and sauciness of such a quote. But 50 years later? Not a parameter by which our daughter's should gauge their clothes.
Do I think the parents who made up the flyer meant anything bad by it? No. Do I think that they meant to put excess pressure and shame on the girls who are trying to shop for a dress for the dance? Not at all. I think they were trying to be fun and impart the necessity of dressing appropriately.
But do I think it was wrong?
Because here's the thing. Girls are bombarded. Daily. Hourly. Constantly. With the shoulds and the should nots. You should act this way. You should project this image. You should be careful not to project this image. You should not invite unwanted attention. All of these messages only serve to confuse and stress and admonish girls. Young girls that are dealing with bodies changing daily. Dealing with clothes that are much tighter this week than they were two weeks ago. The bodies of women and teenage girls fluctuate more than the stock market on election day.
Girls don't need to hear it from schools. And they certainly don't need the message of a dress being tight enough to be sexy but not so tight as to be slutty. Because let's face it, that's what that quote is saying.
Parents got mad. I got mad. Some of my neighbors got mad. We called and emailed. And later that day we got the news that they flyer had been changed.
We won! The people spoke through the megaphone of social media and change happened. Except...
People still don't get it. Some people thought it was much ado about nothing. I get it. Not everyone fights this fight or thinks that a fight is even necessary. And I am totally fine with disagreeing and having different opinions. Hell, it's kind of my job.
But I read and I observe and I hear. I am acutely aware of what's going on and what's being said. It's a side effect of being a writer. And what I hear is my daughter still stressing over wearing a v-neck tee shirt to school after being "coded" in first grade for wearing a sun dress to school. I hear her friends talk about being dress coded and wondering if their outfits will make the cut. These are middle schoolers, by the way. Sweet, innocent girls who wear cute, non provocative outfits. Yet they worry that they will get called out and humiliated in front of their classmates.
I read. I read about the women who have been shamed for an outfit. Who have felt the harsh edge of rape culture that tells them that how they dress is responsible for other's actions.
I listen to people act as if boys and men have no self control around a scantily clad girl or woman. I listen to the scapegoating of our sons. I give our boys more credit. They aren't tripped up or thrown off by a tight dress or the glimpse of cleavage. They may notice, they may look. But the curves of a woman's body are not something scandalous until we make it so.
I see a statement on a flyer for high schoolers and I wonder what the girls are thinking. The ones who are going shopping for a cute dress. But not too cute! I think of the boys. How would they feel if the quote was referring to their manhood? Your pants should be tight enough to show you're a man... I'm thinking they would squirm a little and feel like a giant glaring spotlight was shining on them. Inspectng them and evaluating. Enough manhood? Or too much? Feel uncomfortable yet?
I see a principal who rebuffed and disregarded parents' concerns. Who passed the buck to the volunteers who made the flyer. Who didn't take ownership until the story made the rounds. Until enough people spoke out and until the media caught wind of it. Even then? His response speaks to deflection and passing the blame. "There was some perception that it was targeted towards our females," he said on a local news broadcast. Um... yes. The words dresses, woman and lady seem to indicate that it was in fact speaking to girls specifically.
He continued, "Maybe it was seen to hurt folk's feelings, but that wasn't the intent at all." Let's be clear. No one's feelings were hurt here. People saw something blatantly and patently wrong. They spoke out. To phrase it as hurt feelings is equating this to an emotional response that is not based on reason. Wrong again, sir. And this "apology" is a not too distant cousin of "Sorry, not sorry."
Perhaps you don't get it, Mr. Principal. Maybe you've never thought much about these kinds of things. Maybe you've never concerned yourself much with the perceptions and the ramifications that words have to send messages and relay things that can have a subtle or not so subtle affect on young women. But seeing as how you are a principal of a high school of boys and girls, I would suggest that you take a moment and dig into this. Do a little reading and research outside of your own bubble. You are the caretaker of girls while they're on your high school campus. Remember that your job is to protect them as well as your male students and your own reputation.
Remember that words matter. Words can shame. They can anger, and they can stoke the flames. And sometimes, with a little help from some smart, caring people and social media? Words can bring change.
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