Covering curves and covering up sexism

Every year, administration sits students down and tells us the basics; what we can do, what we cannot, where we can go, and, infamously: what we can wear. In 2014, this presentation caused controversy when a then senior stood up in front of the entire auditorium, about one-third of the student body, and challenged the validity of dress codes because they were inherently sexist.

Since then, dress code presentations are given in smaller groups, where risks of causing school-wide backlash are slimmer. This year, however, certain comments made proved that backlash was in no way impossible or unwarranted.

The administration gave us the standard guidelines regarding honor code, attendance, senior expectations, and dress codes. We were told that this year, the dress codes were not meant to target any gender, rather promote an overall professional environment. However, instructions to cover any cleavage or midriff did not feel very gender neutral. Nor did instructions to “cover our curves.”

The first problem with the above statements is the fact that they felt almost more pointed than instructions that begin with the word “ladies.” They are difficult to interpret. Does “cover your curves” mean that we should not wear anything tight? How much cleavage is too much? When do we cross that line? These questions put a lot of weight on the female students at this school when they get ready in the morning, and very little on boys who quite literally cannot possibly break the majority of dress code rules, seeing as they do not even have cleavage. Of course, boys have the capacity to break guidelines regarding drug paraphernalia or inappropriate subject matter, but that is more common sense than it is a forced responsibility for the way others interpret you.

In the school issued planners, the dress code is outlined as “the District’s expectations for what is acceptable and unacceptable.”

There are three guidelines, the most prominent of which states that “no suggestive or revealing attire that would divert attention from the learning process or contribute to inappropriate conduct by other students (e.g., this includes shorts and skirts deemed too short by the school administration. Shorts must have a minimum three-inch inseam, and girls’ tops should have a minimum of one-inch straps.”

However, these guidelines and the ones mentioned in the presentation are nowhere to be found on the district website.

Though they never explicitly tell us, girls know that the reason we are told to cover up is a result of the constant sexualization of our bodies, not a concern for professionalism. There are plenty of professional women who show their curves and, yet, surprise surprise, are incredibly successful and driven. Dressing in a way that you like and feel comfortable in should be a decision that you make, not one that is made for you. The way one dresses can also be more than just clothing; it can be a form of self-expression or body positivity.

“Dress codes tell us that girls have to follow the rules but that boys do not. You’re basically blaming the girls and giving them this moral responsibility for something that is not theirs,” senior Lillian Cheung said.

More than being blatantly sexist, these new dress code guidelines have undertones of body shaming. Not every girl has cleavage. Two girls could be wearing the same shirt, but have different appearances in it because of their body type. The idea that one of these girls could be dress coded and the other could not is more than unfair; it targets individual bodies and places restrictions on some girls that others do not have to deal with. The implications of those restrictions are not a mere inconvenience for young women at Burlingame; it sends us a direct message that stems far deeper than whether or not we can wear spaghetti straps. It is about bodily autonomy, and the difference between showing up to class in a bikini, which we can all agree is inappropriate, and showing up to school in a tank top. Part of the problem is that they can almost be viewed as the same thing, as a sort of shameful and rebellious act when, in reality, it may just be a cute shirt.

It can be easy to write off the Burlingame dress code simply because it is rarely enforced. The majority of young women on campus have shown “cleavage,” or worn shorts that are plenty shorter than our middle fingers. That is not the point. Dress codes can make girls feel incredibly targeted and uncomfortable. We are forced to have an increased awareness of our bodies in a place that is meant to be safe. If we are “here to learn,” being caught by the administration on our way to English class should be the least of our worries.

“We really can’t control the way our bodies look,” Cheung reiterated.

Being dress-coded is not a common occurrence on campus, but when it happens, it is not something easily forgotten. Senior Sam Hale, who was forced to wear leggings under her ripped jeans last year after a male teacher deemed them too sexual, was one of the girls that had to go through the humiliating process.

“I was humiliated. I committed no crime but received a punishment. That day I was taught that my body is nothing to celebrate; I should be ashamed of it,” Hale said.

So, dress code or not, our bodies are our own, and they are something we as young women should be taught to love and accept. If we are taught by adults that the way our peers perceive us is more important than our education, then we cannot possibly have an entirely positive relationship with our bodies. Instead, the feeling of being under constant scrutiny is something that can follow young women into our adult lives. It is time for administrations across the country to stop weaponizing the female body and instead empower students to separate sexualization from education.

Posted on September 26, 2016 .