There are so many things I hate about dress codes. I hate that they usually target girls and their sexuality, implying that a) if girls don’t cover their bodies boys will have no choice but to “lust” after them and b) a girl’s sexuality is something to fear. I hate that they imply that a woman’s character is based on her level of purity.
I hate that they become an opportunity for grown men to ogle young girls in order to better police what those young girls should wear. I hate that they project gender roles onto young people. I hate that they go hand in hand with body- shaming young girls just when their bodies have started to change and they are still learning how to deal with those changes.
In contrast, I love seeing young women standing up for themselves on social media with hashtags like #IAmNotAnObject, #MyBodyMyBusiness, and #MoreThanADistraction. I love seeing them reclaim their bodies as their own, rather than some grown (or young) man’s fantasy. I love seeing them call out our education systems for continuing to prioritize boys over girls. I love seeing them call out the innate sexism at the centre of most dress codes
So why am I writing a post in defence of dress codes?
Well, I am not really defending them, at least not the kind of dress codes we are used to hearing about. What I want to defend is dress awareness; I want kids to understand that there are different dress standards for different social situations.
As an educator, I feel uncomfortable when I see dress codes constantly demonized in the media. While I definitely agree that there is a problem, working in schools has made this issue seem much less cut and dried for me. For example, how should an educator respond when a teenager comes to school wearing a t-shirt that features a large image of Johnny Cash flipping the bird? Or a tank top so small that you suspect it might actually be a bathing suit?
I certainly don’t think it’s right to shame those kids for trying to express their individuality through their style choices, but I do think it is important to dress differently for work or school than you would for the beach or a party. I believe that dressing like a professional is a skill worth learning, and something we should be encouraging, even in high school.
This is where the tricky part comes in. The moment we try to set any standards for professional dress, we have to wrestle with our social circumstances. How do we step outside of a cultural environment that will sexualize a women in literally any profession?
How do we avoid sexualizing our young girls, even more than they already have been, when we try to teach them that certain forms of dress will be perceived as less professional than others?
Well, I think a big part of that lesson needs to be about taking the emphasis away from gender, as one school in Thailand has done.
Bangkok University has a strict dress code that may seem very gendered at first glance. While both genders are directed away from untucked shirts, the poster featuring women also places a ban on short skirts.
Luckily, Bangkok University’s other posters clarify that the goal of the dress code is promoting what they deem professional attire, rather than controlling young women’s bodies. Not only does this emphasize detract from the sexualizing element of dress codes, it also creates helps break down the gender binary that some students may not subscribe to.
Dress codes like these demonstrate that there is a third option available. Dress codes don’t need to be focused on controlling young women and their sexuality, or protecting young men and their “uncontrollable” urges. They can be about teaching young people how to manage their style according to the wide variety of social circumstances they will encounter as an adult.
Let’s just hope most of those circumstances don’t involve wearing a shin-length skirt.