Girl Power.

  • Tue, 7, Jun, 2016 - 5:00:AM

Undressing dress codes: Sexism, sexualisation and school balls

There are some dress codes I can wholeheartedly support. Are you going to be handling corrosive chemicals, working with boiling hot oil, or operating heavy machinery (in which certain bits and pieces may get stuck)? If so, there are certain outfits that are just not going to work. No one wants a first-degree burn – or bruising in areas where there are a rather large number of nerve-endings.

But in the absence of hazards that may cause serious bodily harm, who really cares whether one wears high heels or flats, a bra or no bra or clothes that may (gasp) show one’s bare arms?

Schools, apparently. And television networks. And at least one multinational accounting firm.

2016 has been a particularly bad year for gendered dress codes. First there was TVNZ’s directive that all female reporters must cover their arms (because, obviously, female elbows are so very distracting… not to mention armpits… which are basically pornographic). Then there was Henderson High School, with its apparently male-staff-endangering short skirts, and most recently, St Dominic’s College with its concerns about backs, cleavages and LEGS (scandalous) running amok at the school ball. 

If my hazy teenaged memory serves me correctly, school balls don’t generally involve scalding hot grease or dangerous chemicals. The major hazards at such gatherings, according to school administrations, are the libidos of young men and the bodies of young women. Though really, if we’re to cut to the chase, the underlying sentiment is this: CAUTION! Sex may happen.

Quelle horreur.

And whether or not the dreaded sex will happen depends solely on the fashion choices of young women. Of course.

Call me a slut (because the word is often floating just below the surface when it comes to female sexuality – let’s not beat around the bush) but I wore a dress with a plunging neckline, back AND a split up to my thigh to my Year 13 ball. It was quite a gown. I felt unashamedly fantastic in it.

Did some unspeakable fate befall me after the clock struck midnight? No. Did teenagers (wearing all kinds of gowns) have sex that night? Obviously.

But to blame that very normal and common occurrence on the visible skin of young women is to skate on the very thin ice of our perpetual heterosexual double standard. It goes something like this: men’s bodies are dominant and libidinous. Boys will be boys, and boys will demand sex, because they can’t control their bodies. (How men grow up to control the world when they can’t control their own organs is beyond me.)

It follows that women’s bodies are passive and yet erotic. They are sexual objects, constantly subject to the male gaze. Girls and women must take responsibility for the desires and urges men may have by simply looking at them. Because God knows being looked at is always the fault of the woman. Not the owner of the eyes.

Girls’ bodies must be controlled by older people in positions of power (who know better, sweetie) in order to keep them, and the men who may lust after them, safe.

That young women may have sexual desires of their own isn’t even part of the discussion. That young women may feel great wearing a dress that shows a bit of cleavage, or a thigh or back is apparently irrelevant. Because girls’ and women’s bodies are inherently sexual, sexuality is bad and women who dare to be sexual beings are [insert age-old misogynistic slur here]s.

Because patriarchy. Because rape culture. Because screwed-up, sex-negative, pearl-clutching society.

It’s the kind of tripe that belongs in the 1700s, but here we are today, still entangled in morality’s sticky web.

It’s not just New Zealand schools that are in desperate need of an updated approach to sexuality, US schools have also found themselves publicly lambasted for their backwardness. Just a few weeks ago, a senior student at Helena High School in Montana was told to “cover up or put a bra on”. Kaitlyn Juvik was wearing a baggy black long-sleeved top when she was told that her body made someone else feel uncomfortable.

Despite there being no requirement in the school’s dress code for Juvik to have to wear a bra, the school insisted on policing her body, and making someone else’s discomfort her problem – sparking protests from the student body, with accompanying media attention.

And as for the US school ball equivalent – last month Pennsylvania high school student Aniya Wolf was thrown out of her prom because she wore a suit instead of a dress, revealing to the student body, and later the global audience of the Daily Mail, that Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg sees no problem in reinforcing tired gender stereotypes and violating a young lesbian student’s personal agency. Thankfully, the principal of William Penn Senior High School sent an invitation to Wolf and her date to attend their senior prom, showing that not all school officials are out of touch with reality (and human decency).

The sad truth is that these examples of fuckery keep coming thick and fast. From PricewaterhouseCoopers to Brooklyn Technical High School, stories of sexist dress codes hit the media with alarming regularity. Which may be a positive sign – there’s nothing like a PR disaster to force an organisation to change.

The constant barrage of these stories does, however, confirm that sexism is alive and well in our schools and our workplaces. At their most basic, these rules are telling girls and women that they must adjust themselves somehow to fit in with the expectations of others. It’s time for us to undress these codes and see them for what they really are: tools to oppress women. 

TAGGED IN

  • Sexism /
  • Dress Codes /
  • Sexualisation /
  • Henderson High School /
  • St Dominic's College /
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers /
  • TVNZ /
  • Sex /
  • Teens /
  • Rape Culture /

Comments ( 2 )

  • Angela Barnett's picture

    Angela Barnett - Mon, 2016-06-13 22:31

    Well said. I'm waving my bare arms in applause and typing with no bra on.
  • emjaynz's picture

    emjaynz - Sat, 2016-08-27 14:21

    Shout out to all the queer girls who aren't tempted to assault other girls in short skirts! I joke, but honestly. If you're uncomfortable about women having visible bodies and skin, it's definitely you at fault.
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