Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?

In May, 2014, a Wisconsin Middle School banned girls from wearing leggings to school because they were “a distraction in the classroom.” Earlier, a Minnesota High School principal made the same argument, adding a directive specifically to girls, “Cover your butts up – I’m just going to say it straight up. We’re seeing too much.”

Last month, in Utah, nearly a dozen girls were turned away from Homecoming due to their "immodest dress."

"They pulled me to the side and asked me to twirl around to see if I was immodest, then made me sit against the wall," one girl said. "And while I was sitting against the wall there was about 10 other girls that were sitting there being embarrassed.” 

And just last week in the aptly named town of Devil's Lake, North Dakota, a principal banned girl's leggings because the clothing item, "makes them look like prostitutes."  If that doesn't make your blood boil, the school handily dealt with the "problem" by sitting a bunch of girls down for a viewing of the film Pretty Woman.  The backwards method to their madness was to use fictionalized Hollywood situations where a woman is shamed for wearing certain clothing items in order to shame girls for wearing certain clothing items.

It's a good thing these men are educators.  Er...

My own daughter came home earlier this year with news that her school had not only banned leggings but the yoga pants that virtually half of their mothers wear to the grocery store every day were also, “too distracting to boys.”  This began a very public debate within my town and across the world in news sources from the Associated Press to Huffington Post.  At its center was the question of whether or not boys could be expected to control themselves around the temptation of girl’s bodies.

Buried inside this rat's nest of complicated behaviors was the fact that only the curvier girls were being disciplined for dress code violations. My neighbor’s child, a slight twelve-year-old who is shaped like a pencil – wore leggings and yoga pants all year without consequence. But my daughter’s friend, a girl who developed on the early side of adolescence, had already been called to the office three times for the same outfits my neighbor’s child was wearing without incident. And even when the curvier child followed the dress code, she was sometimes coded. Staff explained to her that even though her skirt met the finger-tip length rule, “Some girls can wear certain outfits and some can’t.  It’s all about body type.” Worse, these punishments were doled out when peers were within earshot, causing boys to mumble words like “slut” and “whore” as the girl slunk back to class wearing the gym shorts she'd been ordered to put on. It’s important to note that the Principal admitted there had been no incidents with boys that prompted the heightened dress code enforcement.  Girls confided that boys hadn’t even noticed their pants before the staff member punished them.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 11.59.49 AM

So the girl's pants were not actually causing boys to misbehave until a staff member pointed them out.

In a recent post, a blogger addressed the experience of having been sexualized by the adults at her high school,

Dear Skyview: I want to tell you, as a former student what I am feeling right now when I look back at my high school experience...You created a “learning environment” where I was ashamed, where I was afraid, and where eventually, I was enraged. Enraged because your “dress code” served to humiliate the females for having bodies. For being female and having the gall to put on clothing that suggested they were female. Where the burden of the opposite sex’s learning was placed squarely on my covered shoulders. ... Our underage bodies were INCREDIBLY sexualized. We were not protected... You are teaching girls that if their pants are too tight, if too much skin is visible above their knees, if their shoulders are bare, they deserve to be punished. And don’t tell me its not punishment. You are telling them to go home and not come back until they look differently. You are setting the stage for the boys you are teaching to grow up into men who say “she asked for it” because she was dressed provocatively... Don’t kid yourself that you are teaching “life skills” by banning yoga pants. Guess what? I wear yoga pants every day to work. Because I work from home and I can. Why do I wear yoga pants, you ask? To seduce my non-existent male co-workers and distract them from their jobs? The reason I wear yoga pants is that they are COMFORTABLE. 

Ok, so laying the blame for the sexualizing of girls solely at the feet of educators would be wrongheaded.  The impetus to cover girls bodies isn't totally derived from a place of perversity.  After all, the media sexualizes girls at shamefully early stages of development.  We stare silently at our televisions as Miley Cyrus twerks against an older man, and watch in horror as toddlers gyrate while wearing the hooker outfit from Pretty Woman. To be sure, there are real safety issues to concern parents and educators.  Around the world, girls today experience catcalls, unwanted touches in public, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, acid burnings, stoning, female infanticide, abandonment, murder, restricted education, sexual slavery and being sold as dowry brides. Simply put, the world is not a safe place for girls. But I'm certain that part of the solution to violence against girls and women is to make sure that our daughters and sons know very early on that what girls wear does not explain or give permission to boys to hurt girls. Girls get the message very young that their worth is almost solely tied to the way they look.  They are encouraged by the media to look sexy.  Toy stores sell pole dancing dolls, padded bras for four-year olds and high heels for infants.  But at the same time, girls are shamed for being sexy, whether directly like the science teacher in Shreveport, La, who called a twelve-year-old student a “sassy slut,” or indirectly through the use of dress codes.

How do girls navigate this landscape of conflicting messages?  How do parents? 

Some who support dress codes have insisted that girls should wear uniforms to school.  But the schoolgirl uniform is one of the most sexualized outfits in the media. Its presence in porn is at the level of fetishism.  In fact, I was wearing a Girl Scout uniform when I was nine-years-old, dragged into the bushes by a stranger and sexually assaulted. I can tell you first-hand that uniforms don’t protect girls from sexual violence. We all want to protect girls from experiences like this.  When I see my daughter leave the house in a short skirt, a part of me panics.  But this panic isn’t because I think there is anything wrong with her body.  My anxiety is because I know that, if a man were to sexually assault my daughter, she might be successfully blamed for the assault simply because of the clothing she was wearing.

In a PBS interview, Abby Maestas, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Utah said,  "Often times I have sat with a police officer or a client and have heard that a four-year-old girl was responsible for seducing her perpetrator who was an adult.” Why do we continue to perpetuate the myth that boys and men can’t control themselves?  Instead, we tell girls to hold their keys between fingers as they walk alone at night, lock their doors, carry pepper spray, cover their drinks at bars, use anti-rape apps and, of course, dress conservatively. Still, one in three girls can expect to be raped in her lifetime. When do we ever ask, “What was the rapist wearing?”  We don’t.  Because it’s nonsense to think that our comfy, leggings are any more at fault for the act of rape than the pants a rapist wears.

As I sit here in my soft, stretchy yoga pants - my daily uniform of choice as a writer, professor and mini-van driving mom - I'm grateful that, in our town, we convinced the school board to revise the dress code and remove any mention of leggings or yoga pants.  But across the world, there lingers a basic misunderstanding that what a girl wears holds the power to incite rape, invite shameful comments or "distract" from learning."

Let's evolve, shall we?

Boys and men are going to have sexual thoughts even in societies where women wear burkas to school.  Sexual thoughts are natural regardless of one's identified gender.  But women (shockingly) seem to be able to control themselves around the flash of a shoulder, those tight little wrestling shorts boys wear or jeans that show a bit of boxer.

The goal can't be to prevent people from being attracted to one another. That's not an attainable goal.

In fact, shouldn't men and boys be insulted by the very notion that they have no self-control?

My friend Robin wisely asked, "What if the schools took the energy they're spending on shaming girls for wearing yoga pants and put that into teaching about topics like personal responsibility, consent and respecting others?"

Now that's a plan I'd love for schools to adopt.

In the end, what will really work to limit distractions is to reinforce the truth that girls are not responsible for boys' or men's thoughts or actions. Period.

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    Juliet C. Bond

    Juliet C. Bond is a writer and professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Her first book, "Sam’s Sister," was published in 2005, and has sold over 50,000 copies. She went on to collaborate with Newberry winner Joyce Sidman to publish the stage adaptation of "This is Just to Say." Juliet’s shorter works can be found in "The Prairie Wind," at storystudiochicago.com and citymusecountrymuse.com. Juliet serves as the Welcome Coordinator for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Illinois, and has had the pleasure of working under the tutelage of award winning authors including; Jane Yolen, Jane Hamilton, Laurie Lawlor and Audrey Niffinegger. She chose the name for this space as an homage to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony whose hard work on gender equality serve as daily motivation to continue fighting for girls and women everywhere.

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