In 4th grade, I was nearing the end of the school year, and I had decided to wear my favorite pair of bright purple shorts to school. As I headed to class, I was pulled aside by my teacher. She asked me, “Honey, do you have a change of clothing in your locker?” Like any nine year-old girl would, I looked at her in confusion. I didn’t understand what the problem was. As a teenager, I now see that my prepubescent body wearing shorts on a hot day was, in her perception, a “taboo”. This was the first of many times that I would be taken aside and later even pulled out of class for wearing “inappropriate” or “provocative” clothing.
I was in 6th grade and going through major transitions into pre-teen hood. A new school, new friends, new changes occurring within my body and my mind. I was never one to keep up with middle school trends but one trend in particular stands out in my mind — “Slap-Ass Friday.” It was the holy grail of weekdays for boys who wanted to grope their female classmates under the relative anonymity of a crowded school hallway. After I and other classmates were subjected to these non-consensual intrusions, I did the thing that I’ve been taught to do in cases like these. I went to a teacher and told her the names of the boys who were committing these acts, expecting for them to get suspended or reprimanded in some way. The following Monday, I returned to school. I prematurely felt relief because I thought I wouldn’t get grabbed without my consent for at least another week. I was so wrong. Not only were those boys not reprimanded, but completely out of nowhere there was a mandatory dress code review in class that day — something that had never happened before. During that class time, instead of being taught arithmetic, I was taught about how I was responsible for my own sexual harassment. The dress code was the first tool that society ever used on me to get me to mold my behavior so that boys wouldn’t have to change theirs.
As a high schooler, my most recent experiences with a problematic dress code have resulted in a more pointedly negative dynamic than I ever imagined. It has caused a major disruption in the relationship between my teachers and I as academic symbiotes and a turn toward seeing them as body police who are sexualizing my form. This was caused by their sharp attention to petty infractions such as a hint of my bra strap showing or a tiny sliver of midriff being momentarily visible between my shirt and my jeans. I’ve grown to understand that my educators respect me enough to believe that I am capable of academic success but not enough to believe that I am capable of making my own decisions regarding “appropriate” attire.
Over the last year, fellow students and I have made the push towards a revised dress code that is designed not to inadvertently body-shame or victim-blame. It took an entire campaign of re-education for many of the adults in our community to understand the depth and validity of this issue but we finally did it. On top of gender oppression, ableism is also woven into badly designed dress-codes. Parents all over our district wrote to say how certain restrictions affected their children with disabilities as well. Our school board passed the new dress code unanimously after over a year of heated contention. I’m elated for all of the little girls across my district in Kenosha who won’t have to deal with a dress code that disproportionately affects their education and sense of self. However, in this time of victory I am reminded of the little girls all over the country who are still being harmed by their oppressive dress codes. I urge everyone, everywhere to take a look at your dress codes and ask yourselves if they can be made fairer. And if so, then what’s stopping you?