Teasing apart the hairball of issues jumbled together in the school dress code issue and its news coverage.
Do you think I look like a hooker?
Wearing knee-high boots, a super short skirt, and a tight, low-cut top, the teenager on the verge of leaving the house for an evening with friends was, of course, deliberately provoking her mother, looking for a reaction to react against. A veteran of the home front, however, her mother missed not a beat as she glanced up from her book and replied calmly before returning to her reading.
No, dear, you look lovely. Just don’t stand around on any street corners.
It’s been 20 years since this cross-generational exchange, but some things never change. As a general rule, teenagers dress more revealingly, more provocatively, than older women. Even than women just slightly older.
Why? There are likely many reasons, but I suspect one is the novelty of being able to display their newly sexually mature bodies in a sexually attractive way.
But whatever the reason, some teenage girls have recently run afoul of school dress codes. The girls, and sometimes their parents, have cast the issue as being about rights—the girls’ right to dress comfortably in hot weather, or to express themselves freely, or not to be seen as sexual objects, or not to be molested. Excluding same-sex attraction from the conversation just for simplicity, let’s look at that jumble of ideas.
Within the limits of the laws on indecent exposure, do women of any age have a right to display themselves in public as they please, whether for physical comfort or psychic satisfaction? Yes.
Do they have the right not to be seen as sexual objects? No, because no one has a right to control what goes on in someone else’s head. Do they have the right not to be treated as sexual objects? Well, it might not be a right, exactly, but it would be nice.
Do they have the right to display themselves without being molested? Yes. There is no style of dress that causes, justifies, or excuses assault.
But in a civil society the conversation doesn’t end with rights, much less with the rights of just one party. In addition to vigilantly insisting on our own rights, we must also respect the rights of others. One school said that it was trying to remove distractions for male students and teachers.
Do male students have a right to attend school without being distracted by women? Do male teachers have a right to a work environment free of sexual distractions? No, because no one has a right to make what goes on between their ears someone else’s responsibility.
Maybe all this talk about rights isn’t like, you know, helpful. Let’s try another approach.
Dress is more than personal, it’s situational. Rights aside, most adults dress in part based on where they are: a beach, a downtown street, a concert hall, the backyard, a golf course, an office, a bar. They dress in part based on what they are doing: swimming or just beach-walking; performing on a stage or being an audience member; working as a professional golfer or as a caddie; playing a sport, watching a sport, or selling refreshments at a sporting event; working in the boiler room or at the reception desk.
Is there more variation now than 50 years ago in what is acceptable in any given place? Yes. Does the balance between personal and situational shift, depending on the situation? Yes. But do adults find a style of dress that works for most, most of the time? Yes, again. It’s just one part—and not a very big part, at that—of being a functioning member of our society.
Maybe the young women afflicted by what they see as an unfair dress code can reframe this from ‘rights’ to something a little less contentious. Maybe they can come to terms with a different style of dress for school than on the beach, in the mall, or at a party.
Maybe the schools involved can rethink their dress code rationale to find something a little less contentious, and stop suggesting that young women are responsible for men’s sexual feelings and mental focus. As they struggle to define school-appropriate attire in an admittedly fluid environment, maybe they can come to terms with the fact that no solution will be perfect and that’s not anyone’s fault.
And maybe, just maybe, they can all grow up, just a little.