By: Bethany Pombar, Prevention Specialist at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
A couple of weeks ago I chaperoned a middle school dance where one of the jobs we were asked to fill was to judge whether or not the girls’ outfits met the dress code before letting them in. The dress code was stated as no “spaghetti” straps and nothing strapless, hems had to be below where the finger-tips fall on the thigh. Clearly, these are all codes targeted at what the girls were wearing. None of the volunteer parents wanted to sign up for this role; it made us all intrinsically uncomfortable to be looking at young girls’ bodies and clothing and judging them this way.
Last week I was presenting at a community forum around prevention where I was talking about teaching boys not to objectify girls and to point it out when it happens so we can learn through examples. A woman spoke up and said that she agreed with that but that we also needed to teach girls how to “respect themselves” and wear more clothes. This was not the first time, or the last, I will hear this comment and it always makes me chafe.
Last night I brought my young teen daughter shopping for summer clothes, shorts in particular. The options for inseam lengths ranged from 1” to 3”. *Cue feminist melt down.*
After the fourth pair of short shorts was brought to me for my approval, I found myself worked up in to a diatribe against the choices that were available. Standing in the middle of this department store, I heard myself exclaiming to my daughter, and really anyone in ear shot, that I wasn’t upset with her selections in clothing, I was upset with a culture that limits her choices to 1, 2 or 3 inch inseams.
I was upset with a world that sexualizes bare skin and youthful bodies. A society where she is sent clear messages that female power comes from sex appeal and she can be sexy by revealing her body (note: pant-less Beyonce as Time’s #1 most influential person), AND THEN swings around to tell her that it’s her responsibility to keep herself safe from sexual assault, harassment and the male gaze and follows it up with a healthy dose of shaming messages that say that by wearing these clothes and showing skin, she is not respecting herself. How is anyone supposed to make sense of that?! This is the rape culture. This is the patriarchy.
The clothing being marketed to teenage girls as cool/ fashionable isn’t meant for them to be active in, for them to bike, run through the woods, roll down grassy hills, sit cross-legged on the lawn in the summer sun, play soccer, garden or chase around the kids they are babysitting. T-shirts are getting thinner, less rugged; tank tops looser and more gauze-like, more likely to catch on things or fly up with a gust of wind or cartwheel; sandals with thin straps and barely a sole, no support for running or walking; shorts designed clearly to show leg rather than cool the active body. The message is: “girls, it’s more important for you to look good than to be comfortable while you are doing things.”
Let me make it clear, I’m all for people wearing what they want to wear. Like the meme that makes its way around social media every summer that shows a bunch of different body outlines and states “how to get a bikini body: put your body in a bikini.” Yes, if you want to wear a bikini, wear one! But for me there is a critical piece missing from that conversation about empowerment and body acceptance: why would you want to wear a bikini to begin with? Sure, 2-pieces are easier to change in and out of; I love my “tankini” for that. But let’s face it, most full-on bikinis are impractical for swimming or diving in, those tops are notorious for their not-staying-in-place antics. Most younger women I know who wear them admit to feeling quite self-conscious. Once again, we have a piece of clothing for women that is meant for looking pretty in rather than actually DOING something. And then we promote these “body positive” messages that basically say that to prove how empowered you are, you should wear a bikini no matter what size your body is.
We need to ask ourselves is: What is the motivation for wearing the clothes that are for looking rather than doing, the dresses that don’t meet dress code, the short shorts, the un-functional bikinis? How can we change the messages women are getting about their bodies, their clothing choices and their worth?
I can’t be upset with my daughter for following the social directives around what is cool to wear. I can’t fault her and say she doesn’t respect herself- I know she does (as do I, she is amazing!). I know someone’s worth isn’t wrapped up in their clothing. I don’t want to police what she wears because I don’t want to shame her around expressing herself. AND, I also don’t want my consumer dollars to support the limitation of women’s bodies. I want her to be comfortable and be able to move freely, unhampered by her clothing. Rock, meet hard-place.
I haven’t figured it out yet.
I’m talking to the school about dress codes. When we impose dress codes on girls what we are trying to do is to protect them from harassment and embarrassment. Yet in doing so, we perpetuate the cultural story that it is women’s job to protect themselves from sexual violence and the myth that what you wear might get you raped (not true). We also perpetuate a cultural story that young men are wild sexual beasts who cannot control themselves when there is too much skin showing on women. I like to think more of the men in my life than that. I also think that putting all the responsibility for safety on the potential victim takes all the accountability off the potential offender and off of the community that is permissive of offending behavior.
I’m talking to my daughter about my feelings. I’m talking to other parents. I’m talking, talking, talking and crossing my fingers that maybe she will hear me and the next time we go shopping, we walk out with some Bermuda shorts.