[Paige McCall is a Mount Si High School graduate currently attending New York University who plans to pursue a career in writing. She said she was inspired to write this piece after listening to her younger sister and friends relay their frustrations with new tank top dress code policies.]
Is it Fair?
Imagine this hypothetical if you will. It’s 12 pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into the school year. A girl sits in her 7th grade math class, working on an equation. She’s not sure if she fully understands how to do it yet, but the teacher will explain it after they all give it a shot. Everyone is quietly working, except for two boys sitting behind her, whispering and snickering.
She’s about finished with her problem when she is interrupted by a sharp snap on her back. She turns around to see the boys behind her now laughing at full volume and receiving high fives from their friends. Across the room, some more boys have seen this and begin to laugh with them too—half of the class is distracted by these boys snapping the girl’s bra strap.
The teacher has also seen what has just happened, and after reminding everyone to get back to work, makes his way towards the girl and the boys. She feels momentary relief from her pain and embarrassment, and can’t wait for the boys to be reprimanded so she can just try to finish her work. But instead, the teacher crouches down next to her desk and quietly informs her that she needs to go to the principal’s office.
Once there, she is told that she needs to call her mom and have her bring her something “more appropriate” to wear. Although it’s 90 degrees out and the air conditioning in the school gets it down to what feels like maybe 87, her “two finger” width tank top is not acceptable because people are able to see her bra straps. She is not allowed to go back to class until she has changed.
She sits in the office for an hour—her mom had to leave work to go home and get her a new shirt and then get it to school. By the time she has changed, math class is long since over, and she still isn’t sure whether she has done the math problem correctly.
And all because you could see the strap of a garment that 50% of people wear on a daily basis? We can all make the reasonable assumption that it’s there without even seeing it. What’s the big deal if a small portion is exposed on a hot day? It’s not like she isn’t wearing a shirt.
Could it be that possibly the [middle school] dress code, which requires “clothing must consistently cover stomachs, backs, shoulders, chests, and undergarments while standing, sitting, bending, or reaching… to alleviate distractions in the classrooms,” is unfair to girls?
Time for Thought Shift
Let’s be clear. I’m not advocating for girls to come to school wearing nothing—boys certainly can’t do that either. That’s more than fair. But boys can wear tank tops without fear that their exposed shoulder will be perceived as harmful towards the education of girls. When boys wear shorts that don’t go past their fingertips it’s considered funny. The teacher may approach them to make a joke or have a laugh, but never to send them home. If you’re a girl with long legs and long arms, you’re always at risk.
If only the story mentioned above were fictional, or at least a rarity. But it’s become a staple of the American education system—so much so that most people don’t even realize there’s something wrong with it.
The boys, the ones who took it upon themselves to embarrass the girl and effectively distract the class, are allowed to stay in class. They are not embarrassed. Their education is not interrupted. They get to find out if they are doing their math work correctly.
Because it wasn’t their fault. It never is. The girl provoked them. She probably was trying to distract them. And even if she wasn’t asking for it, she should’ve known better.
This outdated rational that school employees spout off to girls on a regular basis during the warmer months doesn’t sound too different from the blame thrown at victims of sexual assault:
“You shouldn’t have been wearing such a short skirt.”
“You were asking for it wearing a tight dress.”
“You don’t wear something like that to a party and expect them not to do anything.“
Now I’m sure there are many people who think it’s a big jump from simple school dress codes to rape and sexual assault, but I don’t believe that it is.
It’s called rape culture. And it’s real, like it or not. And I certainly don’t like it.
Girls are taught from a very young age that they must be modest. They have to cover up in order to keep from provoking boys. Because boys just can’t help it. Boys… wait for it… will be boys. That’s right, with one adage anything that a boy does is excusable and probably the girl’s fault
The way that we talk about girls, demand modesty from them and tell them they need to wear more clothing on a 90 degree day in order to keep from distracting boys is harmful to the way that girls, who grow up to become women, are viewed in society. And it’s also harmful to the way that boys, who grow up to become men, are taught to look at women.
Women are objects. Women are tempting. Women are asking for you to harass them if they don’t follow the long list of rules set out for them.
Time for Change
We need to stop and think about the way we talk about girls. We need to consciously make an effort to stop perpetuating the stereotype that the way girls dress makes harassment or aggression warranted. Because by doing so we are not only telling girls that they are at fault for any of these unwanted actions, but telling boys that those actions are perfectly acceptable—maybe even natural or uncontrollable.
So one day a boy is in 7th grade snapping the bra strap of a girl in front of him and to his surprise, he doesn’t get in trouble for this, but he watches the girl he hurt get sent home to change. And then one day he’s a man who sees a slightly tipsy girl in a short dress trying to make her way home from a party on her own… and if it was okay that first time, and for the thousand other similar instances in between 7th grade and this moment, doesn’t that mean it’s okay now?
Isn’t it still her fault? Isn’t she asking for it?
Should we keep making the dress code stricter? Outlaw yoga pants next? Or is it time for a new approach? There is an important conversation to be had. It’s time to open that dialogue.
For those of you ready to remind me that “not all men rape” or “there are female rapists too” or “men can get raped too,” I assure you that of course you are correct. No matter the gender of the victim or the assailant, rape is rape.
Approximately 1 in 33 American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. If you think that’s horrible–which it is– you will be disappointed, as I was, to find that rape estimates for women is approximately 1 in 6.
While rape is a problem for both genders, it is staggeringly more prevalent for women. And the correlation between clothing and victim blaming generally happens for women, which is why I chose to focus on women in this piece.