I spent way too much time this week struggling with my administrative team over a teenage girl’s belly and thighs.
This was not how I wanted to spend my week. Being forced to think about it, though, has allowed me to develop and articulate another aspect of my Teaching Dangerously Manifesto: I have no f#$%s to give about what my girls choose to wear to school.
I have a 16-year-old student who regularly wears shirts that expose her midriff and shorts that show her thighs. She also has to work 20 hours a week to help support her family, has bounced from school to school being labeled variously as a “slut,” and a “troublemaker,” and is trying, very hard, to fully show up at school. She happens to look like a full grown woman. She is also brilliant.
In other words, she is a female human being and she has a body and a she has a great big brain. And her intelligence and struggle have nothing to do with her belly shirt. Spending time discussing her shorts — and sending her home, alienating her, and essentially objectifying her by labeling her a distraction — would have detracted from me listening to her passionate argument about how if landless whites and freedmen and women had teamed up in the days following the Civil War, they could have had it all.
The blatant objectification of women’s bodies is clear within enforcement of the dress code. A skinny, bespectacled girl wore similarly tiny shorts the week before I was asked to tell my student to change. Nothing was said to her. My students’ curves were the distraction, it seemed; her thighs, not the littler, more girlish young woman’s thighs, the violation. What does this say to young women about their growing bodies? What messages does this send about crossing over into adulthood, and the danger and distraction they pose to their communities in their uncontrollable adolescence?
I am no longer going to be party to shaming girls into thinking that their bodies are anything less than beautiful and, importantly, theirs. I am done with policing girls’ clothing instead of seriously offering young men opportunities to interrogate the rape culture they consume and produce. If I can at all help it, I will send no girls home to put on a longer skirt, a higher shirt, or a sweater in order “to be consistent.” I will not sexualize adolescent girls when they come to school because a part of their very own body is showing.
I will, however, be a party to dissecting why dress codes exist, and looking at the utterly patriarchal notion that boys cannot control themselves or think about algebra in the presence of (choose one) a)spaghetti straps b)leggings c)crop tops. I will enjoy discussing why this hegemonic view of masculinity has somehow become a moralistic burden that girls, and not boys, must bear.
I am not saying anything new here; I am not saying anything that the courageous young women who coined #IAmNotaDistraction have not already said. We all know that dress codes of any kind do not raise academic achievement. I know that dress codes are increasingly a feminist issue. I am grateful to be entering the conversation at this moment in history.
So, before the hot weather fades, let me be clear that this is what I do not care about: bra straps, short shorts, stomachs and cleavage.
And, no matter the weather, this is what I care about: patriarchy, misogyny, and a culture in which rape and violence against women is normalized.
Right now, this feels like a dangerous stance. I would welcome conversation about this.