Thursday, May 9, 2013

School Dress Codes and Dirty Feminine Flesh

One of the most feminist things I've ever done may have been allowing my daughters to walk shirtless through a nature park. It was about two years ago, to the best of my memory, which will have made them 4 and 6, or 5 and 7. We were walking around a giant man-made lake in the hot summer sun. This is Colorado sun we're talking about here. In Colorado, you are very close to the sun. We were overdressed in jeans and when Noah took off his shirt, the girls both heaved sighs of relief and copied him, whisking off their tops and baring the flesh of their torsos to whatever cooling breeze might come.

I didn't think much about it until we encountered a few other scattered walkers. Then I looked at my six or seven-year-old, a first or second grader, shirtless, and wondered. If we would get stares or even comments. But we didn't. People either smiled or ignored us, passing by. Renewed by the sun and wind on their skin, the girls stopped dragging their heels. They hurried along, kicking at rocks and amassing pocketfulls of acorns and leaves, and eventually we returned to the car, hot and sweaty, and drove them, shirtless, home.

Twice this week I have been told through institutions--the school and the summer care program--that days are approaching when swim suits will be needed. These situations call for distincly different limits for boys and girls. Boys are told to wear swim trunks. Girls are told to wear one piece bathing suits or tank-inis. However, if a girl wishes to wear a bikini--a five or six or seven or eight or nine-year-old girl--she must wear a t-shirt. To cover her body.

So boys are allowed to show their flesh. The entirety of their torsos: shoulders, pecs, nipples, bellies, belly buttons, upper backs, lower backs, all of it. Girls, customarily, don't even need to be told to cover their nipples--of course they will. (Whether I believe they should have to or not). But a girl is not allowed to show this arbitrary strip of flesh from the top of the rib cage to the bottom. This is the area bared by a bikini, this is what they require my daughters to cover.

They must cover it because it isn't considered "modest". It isn't considered to be "modest" because male students and teachers might find it "distracting".

I'm not going to get radical on you and suggest women and girls start going topless. Even though my mom has told me that, as a child, she frequently ran shirtless in the summer. Even though in Asheville, 45 miles away, men are free to bare nipples but a woman who does so faces jail time. And I'm not going to entertain the idea that these rules are for girls own protection. They are not. They are for protection of the male sex-drive, an excuse for boys and men to never have to learn to respect the female body and not, as the above poster says, to over-sexualize it. 

I could write this essay about how troublesome it is that men have been taught so little respect for the female body that even a child's female body is considered somehow sexual, when the truth is a girl's chest is no more inherently sexual than a boy's, and a woman's chest is only sexual because western men have decided it so. I could write about how, with this rule and rules like it, we once again make girls and women responsible for male sexuality. Our culture tends to look down on the burqas of Arabic cultures and consider our school dress codes a different matter entirely. But rules like these are no different from burqas by their intention, only by degree. In Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis", her memoir about growing up in Iran, there is a scene in which she stands up and demands a male teacher explain to her why women must cover their bodies simply because men have decided they are arousing. I could make that same argument at my PTO meeting today, it would make every bit as much sense. It would be just as applicable, and just as relevant, as an argument made by a woman in the 1980's, in Iran.

Imagine if I asked your sons, your brothers and husbands, to cover their legs because I found them sexually arousing and distracting.

My daughters have been aware from a very young age that our society has severe limits on what is acceptable from a female body. (I realized this when my three-year-old Ayla asked me if her legs were "skinny like a pretty girl's") They have told me about a girl at their school who is casually referred to as "Fat Kylie". (There are no boys burdened with a "Fat" before their names, though there are certainly overweight boys) They are growing up in a world that assaults their bodies and their feelings about their bodies with persistent, overwhelming regularity. Here, from their school administrators, they recieve yet another lesson. The lesson that male flesh is free in a way theirs is not. Their body, like their voices, is dangerous and must be stifled. The lesson that there is something inherently wrong with and shameful about their feminine flesh--if there wasn't, why the need to cover it up? It is a subtle message, but clear. Your bodies must be covered because they make men lustful.

Lust is bad.

Your bodies make men be bad.

Your bodies are bad.


  1. I'm speechless, except for an urge to burn my bra and go topless. I'm serious. What if?

  2. I will admit that I did fall asleep last night while imagining myself at a topless protest in Asheville.

  3. I just don't even know what to say here. A t-shirt over a bikini, but not with swim trunks? I am simply stunned, but I don't know why.

    There's been a pretty thought-provoking conversation over on my blog for the past week about feminism. You're absolutely welcome to join, if you'd like.

  4. This is one of the most thought-provoking things I've read in a very long time and it is all valid and dammit, why do we just accept things the way they are? We, as women, have come a long way but then I read something like this and I realize we've just cracked the surface of sexist thought.

  5. Thank you - quoted and credited you on my fb.


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