Girls, School Dress-Codes and Slut-Shaming

In America, we see Islamic women all covered up and think, “That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!” But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement… or freedom? I want to find out.

Tagline from Lauren Jayne’s blog “The Modesty Experiment

I was just a kid the first time someone wolf-whistled at me. And I’m not gonna lie: it was great. The thing is, I’d been picked on in school my whole childhood, and enough kids had called me “ugly” over time that by junior high, I had come to believe it to be true. So at the tender age of thirteen, already with more to fill out a bra than anything like self-esteem, I discovered in the instance of one catcall that I had sexual power. By 15, I was one of those girls who people thought was older than I was, so my teen years were characterized by fairly regular sexual attention, usually from men rather than boys my own age.

It was flattering at the time. It made me feel special. But when I think back on this period of my life, I feel sad for the young woman who believed she didn’t matter without male attention. Maybe that’s why I get my back up when debates arise about how young women dress, and whether or not they deserve to be subject to the “male gaze” when they show bra straps, or wear short shorts, or what have you.

The topic came up on this recent episode of The Current, on which junior high student Tallie Doyle and her mum were interviewed about Tallie’s efforts to protest her school’s dress code. The story came on the heels of a similar case in which a Quebec student was over a similar challenge. It is remarkable how quickly debates become heated when it comes to the sexualization of girls and young women. I think this is because as a society we are confused about this topic. Little wonder that young women are scratching their heads trying to figure out what the rules are, and whether they are justifiable. They receive mixed messages and are placed in impossible, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t situations. Dress down, and if you are an insecure young woman (as I was), you will be ignored, and possibly ridiculed. That’s lonely business in a society that seems to remind women at every turn that they will be judged in terms of their attractiveness to men. Flaunt what you’ve got and you’re objectified by the boys, hated by the girls, and slut-shamed by both. It’s confusing as hell.[1]

slutback

How is this a word we want to take back exactly? I don’t call other women sluts. And I certainly don’t like to be called one.

So I’d like to come at this from a couple of angles. First – and I just need to get this out of the way – it troubles me deeply when some young women think they are simply asserting their right to self-expression when they protest dress codes. This might piss some people off, but I figure that blaming the “male gaze” for everything allows women to avoid their complicity in a patriarchal culture that renders them invisible and unlovable if they don’t show skin. I’m not saying that piggish, objectifying behaviour by men isn’t a problem – only that it obscures important critical questions around the responsibility of women to examine how much they rely on sexual desirability to feel good about themselves, and to rank order, judge, and harm their sisters. Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvenist Pigs argues that post-feminism has sold women a bill of goods: Supposedly, overt displays of sexuality and participation in “raunch” or “porn” culture has somehow liberated women by allowing them to be “more like men” with respect to sexual freedom and sexual expression. It’s a solid thesis that many young women, sadly, don’t get, and don’t seem interested in exploring, in part because they have learned to focus all of their critical attention on the behaviour of men.

 

School Dress Codes are an Easy Way Out

The second point I’d like to make is related. The stories of the two young women I just mentioned highlight the difficulty of creating spaces to bring face-to-face dialogue to these issues instead of battling them out in mass media. Schools don’t help much. The sociology class I’m teaching right now centers on youth issues, one of which is the extent to which youth have a voice in societies that like to think themselves democratic. My students and I have discussed how schools welcome student perspectives only when they don’t challenge school authority. Kids don’t always initiate critique in the most tactful and appropriate ways, but isn’t it the job of the adults to create safe spaces where young people can practice effective dialogue and critical thinking?

So this is what feminism fought for? (Yeesh.)

I wonder what might happen if young women like Lindsey and Tallie – the subjects of the news stories above — had more safe spaces within which to discuss sexual politics with peers and other women – perhaps women of all ages who might bring some historical perspectives to the issue.[2] Could young women read Levy’s book or other feminist works and perhaps reconsider their “right” to wear sexy Halloween costumes? [photo]. Could they learn to challenge the representation of women’s sexuality in mass media and pop culture in ways that are less confusing than “slut walks[3]?” [photo] Could they learn solidarity instead of slut-shaming? Could they help themselves and other young women (like the one I was) to find intrinsic self-worth instead of dependency on the approving gaze of men and women alike?

Instead, schools create dress codes and rules requiring tiresome and petty exercises of using finger widths and tips to measure strap widths and skirt lengths. Students, as noted in the Current episode by Rebecca Raby find the “preparation for the adult world” and “we all have to follow rules” arguments ludicrous, because these do nothing to address the innate curiosity and idealism that pushes thoughtful young people to question what is just, and to push the bounds of what seem to be and often are shaky grounds for the knee-jerk exercise of authority.[4] Tallie, Lindsey, and all young women are entitled to ask these questions, and should be able to talk out the answers. Unfortunately, in many cases, schools are not places where these conversations can happen.

 

[1] This Huff Post article offers an interesting taste of the complexity of female peer culture when it comes to sussing out who is and who isn’t a “slut,” and why.

[2] Like the second-wave feminists who must have watched the stellar success of Girls Gone Wild and wondered where the fuck the movement went sideways.

[3] I just don’t get slut walks. I mean I get the intent. But for me the line between “taking back” the S-Word and playing into it is anything but clear, and I’m not convinced of their efficacy. See these “feminist critiques of slutwalks.”

[4] Raby offers an excellent, nuanced and research based discussion of dress codes in schools, bringing in perspectives of youth, teachers and parents. See her book School Rules : Obedience, Discipline, and Elusive Democracy.

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on society & education and commented:
    Another good one from Laura. Having attended the Pride Parade in Edmonton yesterday, I’m thinking about parallels between one loud and proud movement and another. I think the success of pride movements speaks for itself, although one ought not to be so excessively smug as to assume that regressive counter-movements are impossible in both cases, and that some less happy medium might not yet come into being. Progress is often an obscuring force — it has the power to fool us into believing that it’s opposite is impossible, and, especially, to hide from view the progression of other forms of oppression more enduring and more difficult to tackle.

    If you can work what I’m only hinting at, you the veil of social progress hasn’t yet covered your eyes. Food for thought.

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