Is it Slut-shaming or is it A School Dress Code?

In the past five years, we have been blitzed with stories about schools whose efforts to tamp down adolescent sexuality through the enforcement of dress code guidelines end in embarrassing news fodder.  Take the tale of Miranda Larkin who, in her first week at her new high school, was forced to wear a “shame suit” after donning a rather modest mini-skirt.  The “suit” is a giant, yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words DRESS CODE VIOLATION across the front.  Or examine the story of forty girls who were ultimately refused entry to their high school dance after being made to flap their arms up and down and turn in circles in front of male administrators.

When schools discipline girls for short skirts, shirts with thin straps, or the hotly debated leggings, girls get the message that their bodies are igniting a sexual response in the people around them. This can be a frightening missive for girls simply following a fashion trend or wearing a comfortable pair of stretchy pants.

And sexualizing of boys based on fashion doesn’t happen in the same way.  Even when the pants-around-the-buttocks-boxer-shorts-showing fad that boys sported through the nineties burned its way across the country, the message to boys was never you are turning us all on. It was more along the lines of, oh for heaven’s sake will you please pull up your pants and stop being ridiculous?  Certainly there was never any indication that this fashion trend would lead to boys being sexually assaulted by girls who just couldn’t control themselves around that kind of temptation.

For girls, there is a clear double standard, indicating that what they wear can incite a sexual response. And everything from giant gym socks to Girl Scout uniforms have been sexualized. For example, a cheerleading outfit is perfectly fine on a football field, but take it into the hallways of a middle school and suddenly the teachers are cringing – or coding. A school uniform is fine positioned within the classroom of a Catholic school but porno-fied in the wider spectrum of media. So knowing what to wear can be pretty confusing.

In a victim-blaming society, the additional coded message is, if you are assaulted, you will have deserved it because you could have prevented it by wearing un-sexy clothing. How many times have rape victims been asked, what were you wearing?  How many times has a female victim’s clothing been used to successfully exonerate a rapist?

A couple of years ago, I lead a field trip to one of those Chicago ghost tours. This is the kind of outing where everyone piles on a small bus and rides around the city at night looking at various sites where tragedies occurred and people have reported seeing ghosts. On our way, the bubbly tour guide shouted, “And if you take our Chicago Sex Tour, you can play a fun little game we call ‘Find the Whore.’” He explained, “We drive down Rush Street and try to figure out which women are whores and which women are just out on a Saturday night looking slutty.” Everyone of the bus laughed congenially while my mouth hit the floor. The criteria for who was a whore and who wasn’t would be solely based on what a woman was wearing. I imagined the humiliation I’d feel if I were identified as a whore by a busload of laughing tourists. To be sure, there have been many Saturday nights when I dressed in a short skirt for a date or donned something low-cut when I went out with my girlfriends.

This kind of slut shaming isn’t new. But now it is targeting younger girls. In a society where children are exposed to thousands of ads each day depicting women and girls in tight-fitting clothing, licking things, gyrating against random objects, and laying suggestively across anything from cars to cartons of yogurt, young girls get the message very early on, that their worth is inextricably tied to their sexuality. What a confusing edict we hand to girls: in order to be considered attractive, you have to look like these women in the ads. Yet when girls wear these clothes, they are punished or humiliated. 

I am in no way proposing that girls should be encouraged to dress like the sexualized women and girls in ads. However, there is a difference between the sexualization of girls and a girl’s normal, developing sexuality. The first should be combatted. The second needs education, empowerment and care.

This blog often attempts to explore how dress codes are used to both sexualize and shame girls. It also attempts to offer some positive solutions. With awareness and specific tools, we can stop social practices and school policies from ultimately harming girls. We can cultivate a culture of acceptance, particularly around issues of girl’s sexuality, and carefully delineate the important difference between the sexualization of girls and girl’s sexuality. But we have to scrutinize the role communities and schools play in developing healthy, tolerant kids, drawing on the expertise of parents, social workers, feminist scholars, anti-bullying experts, authors, teachers and students.

For all the parents and educators who want to help kids cope in a world where girl’s bodies are viewed as dangerous or embarrassing, we cannot be afraid to send an email to a principal, set up a meeting, bring up the issue at a school board meeting, talk to a room full of kids or write about this injustice.

In my hometown, we won this fight. You can too.

 

 

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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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