Dress Codes Don't Teach Girls Self-Respect, but Respecting Girls Could

What Women Really Think
Feb. 15 2013 1:09 PM

If You Don't Want Girls Judged by Their Hemlines, Stop Judging Them by Their Hemlines

teen girls
Two teen girls and many exposed limbs

Photo by Vlue/Shutterstock

Middle school teacher Jessica Lahey is very concerned about her students. She is particularly concerned about her short-skirt-wearing girl students, concerned for "their souls, their being, and their sense of self." And she has taken to the Atlantic to express this concern: 

I work hard to let my girls know that I respect them for their brains and character—regardless of whether they put their cleavage or the length of their legs on display. But I hate arguing about whether or not a skirt covers a girl as far down as her arms hang. I can't count the number of times a girl has complained to me that the relative length of her arms to her torso should be taken into account, that she is forced to wear long skirts because she is burdened with longer-than-usual arms. I hate having to defend my right not to see a girl's underwear. I hate having to tell a parent that yes, her daughter looked fine when she got out of the car, but her daughter rolled her shorts or skirt up once she got to school and was therefore inappropriately attired during first period. I hate having to worry that being able to see a girl's underwear will so addle the boys' brains that they will be unable to concentrate in science class.

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At my high school, the belief was that boys lost their ability to perform well in school if they saw more than an inch above a girl's knee, and in some more religiously conservative communities, general thinking goes that a glimpse of hair is enough to terminate male concentration completely. Regardless of where you draw the line, of course, the argument remains the same: Girls are responsible not only for their own school performance but also for the boys'. Some, such as Lahey, may mistake this as a form of feminism by dressing the complaint up as merely a desire to teach the girls some self-respect, but I have a different word for the notion that a woman loses her claim to respect if she shows an overt interest in sexuality: sexism.

Lahey claims that she only wishes for girls to see that they "are not the measure of their hemlines, but the sum of their strong minds, kind hearts, and unlimited potential." That's a noble goal that I fully support. I recommend that Lahey start sending the message that she doesn't measure girls by their hemlines by not measuring them by their hemlines. Try ignoring their bodies completely and getting directly to the work of cherishing those minds and those hearts instead. As L.V. Anderson noted here recently, most of them will get tired of playing around with the tacky clothes you hate so much anyway.

As I noted last week in response to the smelling-salts brigade disapproving of Beyoncé's Super Bowl show, telling women to cover it up is just as surely a form of sexual objectification as telling women to take it off. Either way, you're reducing a woman to her sexuality instead of considering her as a whole person. Either way, you are, to quote Maya Dusenbery of Feministing, "looking at a woman and instead of seeing a full, complex, and multifaceted human being, all you see is ALL TEH SEXXX."

Girls don't learn self-respect by having teachers do what Lahey does: forcing them to pick from "a box of monstrously ugly, gigantic men's T-shirts purchased at the local thrift store" to punish and humiliate them for their outfits. What girls need to learn is that they count no matter what they wear or who they have sex with, and the best way to send that message is to start acting like you believe it's true. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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