Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jermaister/1307404124/
In recent months, dress codes have caused an uproar in both schools and workplaces. We’ve seen images of girls and young women sent home from school because an outfit of choice was deemed inappropriate by a teacher or school official. Most of the time, the decision to send a student home has stirred parents and students alike. Apparently, leggings and bare shoulders have suddenly become a detriment to male students’ ability to focus in class. The idea that young men are aroused by a girl’s choice in comfortable or fashionable clothing is, frankly, untrue – and never the woman’s fault. The fact that high school girls have been sent home for wearing leggings is absolutely appalling to me. The same goes for bare shoulders; I think we can all honestly say that we have never seen a man swoon at the sight of a bare female shoulder. Restricting a girl’s dress so much that everyday wear is deemed inappropriate teaches a girl that her sexuality is out in the open for all the boys to see – and that the very nature of her body is sexual.
Unfortunately, the restrictions on clothing in the workplace are often just as sexist. My job requires a specific form of professional dress – one that is considered both professional and conservative. I absolutely understand the need to look professional; flats, cardigans, and collared shirts are the fashion staple here. Plus, I’m actually allowed to wear leggings. The catch is this: I must pair them with a top that is long enough to reach my thighs and cover my butt.
Now, my question for those enforcing restrictive dress codes everywhere is this: Will shapeless tunics and sweaters that hide each individual curve on my body somehow hide the fact that I am a woman and have (gasp) the female anatomy?
The funny part is this: the dress code for boys in school or men in the workplace can be something as simple as “Wear a shirt” or “Wear dress pants, not denim.” How is that not sexist when the rules for women are pages long?
The bottom line is that many dress codes can easily be perceived as inherently sexist. Dress codes that are restrictive specifically for women or girls are yet another way of controlling a woman and limiting her power or confidence. Dressing for work sometimes makes me nervous – what if I get in trouble for what I’m wearing? Worrying about such a thing emphasizes the idea that my body will be the cause of my ruin at my job, instead of allowing me to focus on what is most important – doing well at work and having a productive day.
To prove my point, I once had a professor who chose to dress significantly unconventionally. She wore tight dresses and vibrant colored heels that made her tower over even most of the men in the class. On Fridays, she would wear skinny jeans with Converse sneakers and a low cut top. But she was so incredibly brilliant and thought-provoking in her lectures that no one – not even the boys – focused on anything else other than what she was saying. She spoke eloquently and caught us off guard in her lessons; I found her to be the epitome of feminine power. Her ability to teach, to stand in front of students who were not much younger than her, and to assert her opinions was accentuated by the confidence she exhumed – and by how she carried herself in the clothes she wore. She silenced the room when she came clicking in with her six inch heels…and when she sauntered in wearing jeans and sneakers. My professor’s choice in clothing was not for the men she worked with or taught – it allowed her to define her power and stand with confidence and comfort in the classroom.
So, then, we can try to assume that the original intent behind dress codes was to embrace confidence and hard work in both schools and office settings. A dress code should be outlined in order to assist in the image someone presents in such an environment. I know not to come into work wearing a crop top and festival shorts without needing to be told so. I also know that, no matter what pants or shirt I wear, I will still have curves underneath. These curves of my body are not guidelines of my sexuality – they are, simply, part of me. Trying to hide the framework of a woman’s body from a man’s view is futile and, yes, sexist.
The solution is this: don’t perpetuate the idea that a woman’s body must be sexualized. Don’t enforce dress codes that inhibit a woman rather than promote her work productivity. It is not a woman’s job to make sure that a man stays focused and doesn’t look at her; if that is the case, then we should issue blindfolds at workplaces and schools so young men won’t have to be subjected to a female shoulder or female legs. Shatter the idea that a woman is born a sexual object; embrace the fact that she is inherently powerful and fashionable, too.