I’ve never been one to be told what to wear. As a teenage girl, I always struggled with dress codes at school, always pushing the envelope to make sure I wore exactly what I wanted, even with the constant threat of a permanently tarnished disciplinary record looming over my head. It was all in the name of self-expression and staying on-trend. Well that, and the fact that I didn’t find the prospect of bundling up in the sweltering heat thrilling, lest I bathe in my own sweat. Even now, at 23 years of age, my choice of clothing remains selfish despite a few raised eyebrows and my mother’s desperate pleas to “cover up” or “tone it down a little.” Sorry, Mom, but I don’t see how my armpits or my non-existent cleavage might tantalize the male species.
Many schools, however, would beg to disagree. As prom season beckons, dress code restrictions are a laundry list of what girls cannot wear to the occasion. As a general rule, girls are forbidden from wearing cleavage-baring, body-hugging pieces or anything that exposes a little skin—all of which is understandable, I suppose, but not what I’d call “progressive.”
But in a country that still has, for the most part, a conservative take on dressing, you can count on a handful of academic institutions that have taken it up a few notches by prohibiting off-shoulder styles (because clavicles are apparently the devil), and menswear-inspired pieces (because girls can’t dress like boys, so you can kiss your Bianca Jagger pantsuit moment good-bye), leaving many girls with no other choice but to wear miserable, frumpy frocks on that one special night in their high school lives.
While enforcing school dress codes may have genuine benefits, like promoting social and racial equality amongst students, most are still alarmingly rooted in misogyny. Some are downright unreasonable, even dictating upon the girls’ choice of makeup, hairstyle, and nail polish color. These scenarios are most common in exclusive Catholic girls’ schools, where students are taught to dress in a manner that conceals their bodies in order to avoid unwanted attention from the opposite sex. But are dresses that flatter and flaunt the female form really the culprit? Or does the problem lie in how we’re taught to look at a woman’s body?
“The truth is, women are not skimpily dressed when they are violated. Thus, it is not about how women are dressed. Rather, it is how perpetrators assume the privilege of accessing women’s bodies whenever they feel like it,” says Jean Enriquez, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking Women-Asia Pacific.
There’s a real danger in continuing to ingrain the youth with this outdated perception of women’s bodies. In their adolescence, it is already detrimental to how their views on gender roles, self-image, and sexuality are influenced and altered. And while it’s truly difficult to fight against centuries of reinforcement from religion and the continued hypersexualized depiction of women in the media, if left unchecked, this may lead to yet another generation that tolerates rape culture (I can’t roll my eyes enough whenever someone tells me that “men have urges”). “When the presumption is that women’s bodies are the source of sexual violence, you constrain women’s movements instead of correcting people’s perception [of bodies], that they are not supposed to be regarded as sex objects,” Jean elaborates further.
Tomorrow my @lennyletter essay entitled “Baby Woman” is released! This piece of writing is near and dear to me. Sign up today to have it in your email tomorrow AM! Link in bio. Many thanks to @lenadunham ❤️
A photo posted by Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) on Feb 15, 2016 at 9:03am PST
In a deeply personal piece for Lenny Letter, actress and model Emily Ratajkowski (yes, she of Gone Girl and “Blurred Lines” fame) wrote:
I see my naked body in the mirrors of all the places I’ve lived, privately dressing, going through my morning routine. I get ready for my day as one of my many roles in life—student, model, actress, friend, girlfriend, daughter, businesswoman. I look at my reflection and meet my own eyes. I hear the voices reminding me not to send the wrong message.
And what is that message exactly? The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men’s desires. To me, “sexy” is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up? Most adolescent women are introduced to “sexy” women through porn or Photoshopped images of celebrities. Is that the only example of a sexual woman we will provide to the young women of our culture? Where can girls look to see women who find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual? Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.
She concludes her piece with a powerful statement: “I refuse to live in this world of shame and silent apologies. Life cannot be dictated by the perceptions of others, and I wish the world had made it clear to me that people’s reactions to my sexuality were not my problems, they were theirs.”
How can we raise girls to be empowered women when we teach them that their bodies are their ultimate vulnerability and that wearing an even slightly (not even Boom Sason-levels) hubadera dress at prom makes them an inevitable candidate for sexual abuse? “What you allow is what will continue,” people say. But how can we expect boys to become honorable men when we keep teaching them that they’re entitled to act on their urges towards the opposite sex, even if she’s clearly not asking for it? (No means no, you guys.) Someone has to be held accountable. How will we ever progress if we tolerate this cycle?
The challenge of change is up to all of us. Perhaps families should start instilling self-confidence in their daughters, and the true meaning of respect in their sons. Perhaps academic institutions should quit measuring girls’ hemlines, but instead be true advocates of equality. One of us just has to be brave enough to take the first step.
In an ideal world, a girl could wear whatever makes her feel most like a woman—confident, beautiful, or even sexy—because there’s nothing inherently wrong with owning your sexuality that, you know. Not just at prom, but every single day of her life. And if anybody showed any form of disrespect? Well…she’d Ling Ling the crap out of them. I know I always do.
Art by Dorothy Guya