Yoga pants and leggings are increasingly being banned by school dress codes. Photo by Matt Madd.
I was driving by one of the high schools here in Portland the other day and the football team was headed out in their practice gear: dozens of 16-18 year old guys, swaggering along in shoulder pads and tight white pants. Some of them had their shirts off and one of them in particular had a midriff jersey that ended around his rib cage, so as he walked along the sidewalk a couple feet from my passenger door, I could see the trail of dark hair disappearing into his pants.
The scene made me think about a poignant letter from Ashley Crtalic published in the Billings Gazette just a week before, pointing out the hypocrisy behind the dress code at Billings Skyview High School. The school banned leggings, yoga pants, and other fitted pants normally worn by young women because they allegedly distract male students. Crtalic recounts how when she was a student there, she was shamed and punished for dress code violations. However, she was also sexually harassed by her peers. When male students shouted abusive, explicit catcalls, school officials did nothing. So while the school would protect the boys from “distraction”, they wouldn't protect her from abuse. Crtalic’s letter and a number of other incidents around the country where girls are subject to humiliating dress code policing have put school dress codes in the public eye recently.
A 14-year-old student put up these posters over signs announcing their school's dress code.
The “distraction” theory behind public school dress codes is flawed on a number of levels. It interferes with girls' educational time and causes embarrassment. It also puts the burden of boys' self-control on girls. But schools and teachers who are trying to protect boys from being allegedly “distracted” are making also erroneous assumptions about the effects of girls dress. If girls’ outfits do cause a reaction in boys, schools aren't just getting their priorities wrong, they're ignoring aggression, which is a different and more serious problem. Schools are putting resources and authority behind shaming girls instead of taking the opportunity to educate teenagers about consent and gendered intimidation.
What exactly are adults assuming about “distraction”? Are they talking about boys being sexually aroused? Boys having romantic feelings? Looking at girls? Boys aren't just passive sacks of hormones, magnetically thrown off course by female parts or pheromones. Young men and boys are responsible for their own arousal, attraction and attention span. Controlling girls’ dress assumes that boys are more frequently or severely distracted just by being around girls than any other source of distraction and that the only way to fix it is to control the girls.
How do you tell if a boy is “distracted by” a girls attire? Is it because he's catcalling her? Talking about her? Here is where it gets tricky, because schools have a general mission and right to maintain discipline and control student attire to the extent it disrupts the educational environment. But no coverage of this issue I’ve read has discussed how the boys’ distraction actually manifests, and how disruptive it is. But in her letter to the Billings Gazette, Ashley Crtalic makes the connection to sexual harassment, which is certainly a tangible disruption. Crtalic points out that when she was harassed, she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not the outfits that got her punished for dress code violations.
I too was sexually harassed when I was a student in a public high school. A group of boys followed me around the halls, asking if I wanted to fuck and shouting other abuse, particularly if I tried to ignore them. The one time I tried to physically fend one of them off when he got too close, he hit back at me. The vice principal said “that's just what boys do.” At thirteen, I was confused about what it meant. Did it mean boys liked me? I wanted to be liked, but it made me feel like hell. What about the boy on the bus who ran his finger up my leg when I wore shorts saying “niiice”? I decided the best approach was not to wear shorts in public again for about the next seven years. But here's the thing, when I was verbally abused and stalked in the halls, I was wearing jeans, an oxford button-down and a sweater vest (it was the 80s). There isn’t a cause and effect relationship between sexual harassment and dress. So what is happening with these dress codes?
Another student's point about a misguided dress code at her school is loud and clear.
As a society we have no problem telling young men (and women) to develop and exercise self-control when it comes to driving, fighting, junk food and certainly alcohol or drugs. When they fail to self-regulate, they get consequences. So what is it about girls' bare shoulders or legs or yoga pant-clad bottoms that is so powerful? The answer may be “nothing.” Because the point of harassment isn't girls' bodies, it's their personhood. Catcalling or street harassment aren't “compliments,” they are expressions of aggression and dominance. It's a way to control women's presentation in public places. Prevention and education about street harassment make the connection to rape culture clear.
In the case of dress codes, schools are simply assuming that boys can’t pay attention in school because of girls’ dress. But they appear not to be measuring boys’ reactions, instead they are measuring girls’ shorts. Where boys are engaging in some conduct that is conceivably a reaction to girls physical presentation, that conduct is damaging and offensive and should be dealt with directly. No dress or behavior on the part of girls makes sexual intimidation acceptable, even if they were causally related, which they aren’t.
Schools privilege boys’ perceived “distraction” above girls' distraction and the disruption to their education from harassment. Dress codes are less about “distraction” and more about policing young women’s sexuality. If simple “distraction” was a problem, young men walking around in their football uniforms showing their abs would be policed just as aggressively as young women in yoga pants.
What would schools be like if, instead of adults asking girls to bend over to look at how short their skirts are, they put up posters with a respect message like those on public transportation in some parts of the country? Or instead of taking time for a school assembly to show clips from Pretty Woman, they had an assembly about sexualized bullying and how to stop and prevent it. Whether or not young women “look like prostitutes” is a non-problem. Young women being aggressively humiliated is an actual problem. Schools need to fundamentally alter their attitude toward young women and men's emerging sexuality to effect real, healthy change but it would result in a lot less “distraction” for everyone.
Related Reading: Seven Stories of Ways to Stop Street Harassment.