History Retold Project
My Thighs are Not Distracting
I was seven years old the first time I was taught to be ashamed of my body. I vividly remember publicly standing up with my female classmates and slowly reaching my arms down my legs to see if the hem of my shorts reached my fingertips. I didn’t understand why my comfortable athletic shorts were distracting, but I understood I was meant to feel shame and humiliation. Dress codes exist in schools throughout America and thousands of femme presenting people across the country have similar stories. Sexist dress codes in American schools teach children from a young age that it is acceptable to sexualize female bodies, which perpetuates a culture of victim-blaming. However, schools continue to enforce these problematic dress codes to the detriment of their students.
One problem with many dress codes is that they target female bodies. Schools often specifically prohibit the visibility of certain body parts, including “backs, midriff, cleavage, shoulders, and legs, among others,” which are commonly highlighted in feminine clothing, notes the Responsible Sex Education Institute (#IAmNotADistraction). These parts are not inherently sexual, but by prohibiting them, schools drill the idea into the minds of impressionable youth that they are provocative and should be covered up. In addition, all bodies are different, so enforcement differs across body types. For instance, a girl with larger breasts may show more cleavage in one shirt than a girl with smaller breasts wearing the same shirt. Targeting peers with different bodies and banning different body parts can trigger insecurities and body image issues. In a story that made national headlines, Florida resident Riley O’Keefe said that the administration was “making girls feel ashamed of their bodies” when they edited her yearbook photo to cover her chest (O’Keefe qtd. in Cramer). Harmful rules targeting specific body types make dress codes damaging for girls’ body image.
Arguably, the biggest problem with dress codes is how they are enforced. Dress codes often have unclear rules, for instance, the Thurgood Marshall Academy Dress Code states “other inappropriate items determined by a[n]... administrator will not be allowed” (qtd. in DRESS CODED). This creates opportunities for biased and discriminatory enforcement. In addition, a study by the National Women’s Law Commission found that "teachers, administrators, and even security guards and school police unnecessarily touch girls without their consent” during enforcement (DRESS CODED), which not only makes schools feel unsafe but also further emphasizes that it is okay to objectify women. Punishments are often humiliating and detrimental to the learning of students, ranging from wearing a dress code violation shirt to being sent home from school. By enforcing dress codes in a way that objectifies and humiliates the violators and hinders their learning instead of treating a violation like the minor infraction that it is, schools are creating a hostile learning environment.
Administrations often argue that dress codes reduce distractions in classrooms. However, the “distractions” they use as justification are typically sexual. This justification “sends the clear message that boys are not responsible for their bad behavior. By blaming boys’ misconduct on girls’ choices, schools promote an environment where sexual harassment is excused” (DRESS CODED). Allowing boys to hear messages permitting objectification and harassment of women in schools has incalculable consequences later in life that lead to sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. If boys are distracted by seeing nonsexual parts of women’s bodies in a nonsexual context, then they should be the ones punished. By citing “distractions” when enforcing dress codes, schools create an even more damaging environment.
As schools continue to enforce harmful dress codes, we must ask ourselves: why are the thighs of children considered “distracting?” Why are we sacrificing girls’ ability to learn for “distractions” that should be the fault of the boys being distracted? Is this the environment we want our daughters to learn in?