Fuck the Dress Code!
We didn’t have a dress code when I was in school. In that I mean, there was not a list of things that, as a girl, I could not wear. Well, at least, one that was written...
Despite that fact, I was sent home twice in junior high because of my clothing. Once because my friends and I decided to have an impromptu “punk rock” day and all dressed the part. The school did not like or support our independent declaration of autonomy (which is ironic on several levels) so they sent us all home to wash the blue out of our hair and change into “more appropriate” school attire.
However, this is not the incident that has stuck with me. In fact, I only just remembered that this even happened when I started writing this. No, the incident that has stayed with me over the years was far more egregious and sinister.
There was this uptight teacher that I had for home room in 7th grade. She didn’t like me because my best friend, Daniel from across the street, was friends with her son. Her son had to vie for Daniel’s time because he was always with me. When I started 7th grade and had her for home room, I knew I was screwed. She didn’t like me in the community and my being in her class was not going to improve the relationship.
There were a lot of things she did over that year that I could recite here that would more fully support my disdain for her but I will leave those out mostly because I want this one thing she did to stand out, I want you to simply notice this one thing she did that was the most damaging and long lasting.
First the backstory:
I was a skinny kid. Athletic but skinny and puberty and I did not get a formal introduction until I was at least 15...maybe even 15 1/2. This is the kiss of death in junior high. Every other girl was developing at an alarming rate from my vantage point, yet I remained a girl for all outward appearances.
Needless to say, I was awkward, shy and completely out of my league. I was at a distinct disadvantage as seemingly everyone else’s hormones raged, mine lagged and seemed to almost promise to never arrive.
So there I am. A pretty girl among the burgeoning young women trying to have a social life that would include boys. In short, it was hell. I was teased. I was made fun of. That is not to say that I did not have any dates. To everyone’s (including mine) surprise, the hottest guy at the school (and I would argue the nicest) Mike Protchko liked ME! It was truly one of the most amazing oddities of junior high. He was hot (I have shown his photo to my daughter - a current 7th grader and her friends and even 37 years later - the consensus is that Mike was a hottie - although I am sure there is a new word that they would say that I do not know because 1. I am 49 and 2. I am not cool). Mike was also a fantastic soccer player and a great student. We were both military brats and so kin. I like to think that Mike was more mature than the other boys and saw something in me that the rest could not see. Whatever the reason, Mike and I were together all the way into 8th grade - in case you don’t remember - that is a fucking very long time to date someone in junior high. The average shelf life of the junior high relationship is like 4 class periods.
Regardless of Mike’s love and adoration, he did not have the power to bestow upon me confidence or really even shield me from the taunts of other boys. He defended me and even once fought someone on the playground. I like to remember that this had something to do with me, but I am pretty sure Mike had his own insecurities and issues with his peer group going on that is likely more accurate.
So there I was, being pushed into dating that I was particularly ill prepared for as well as sorely lacking in confidence and poise and well, boobs.
Despite my normal outward appearance (on the inside I was punk rock all the way baby) I was scared, alone and desperately trying to keep my head above water. I was failing - not at school - there I excelled - I was failing at feeling worthwhile. I was fragile but even I did not know this. When I think back on this time, I recall feeling like I was walking through quicksand all the time...never knowing when I was going to take one more step and go under forever.
The day that I almost went down for good started off as a pretty good day. I was sitting in homeroom on a desk - talking with my classmates and feeling less like an alien and more a part of the greater whole. It was at this time, that this terrible teacher walked over to me and picked this moment to dress code me. She did it in front of everyone. She told me that my shorts were too short. She did this in front of my friends. She did this despite the fact that I had worn those same shorts the week before. She did this in spite of the fact that several girls sitting in my immediate area were wearing equally short shorts and some were even wearing tank tops that barely contained their explosive breasts.
At first, I thought she was kidding and then I remembered that she had no sense of humor. I was shocked. I was completely knocked off guard. I remember thinking - “great, so now I not only have to defend myself against my peers, I am now going to have battle the staff too!” She made me go to the office and call my mom. I don’t remember exactly what my mom said but I am pretty sure our conversation went something like this:
Mom, Mrs. Bitchyface said my shorts are too short. Can you please bring me something else to wear?
What? Are you kidding me? I am at work, 30 minutes away. I would have to leave, drive home, then drive to you and then drive back to work. What shorts are you wearing anyway?
The jean shorts that used to be jeans that got too short so you cut them off for me to wear as shorts.
You wore those last week.
What teacher is having the issue?
Oh, I already know. What is her problem with you? Wait, I already know that too.
Mrs. Bitchface strikes again. Can you bring me other shorts?
I am sorry honey but I can’t leave work today. Can’t you wear your gym shorts?
On the verge of tears - my gym shorts don’t match my outfit and I would rather die.
I don’t know what else to tell you honey. I am sorry.
When I hung up the phone I felt like I had just been sentenced to a fate worse than death - I would have to wear PE shorts outside of PE. Now everyone would think that I had gotten my period (which was still a good 3 years out by the way). I was horrified. I was pissed. I felt helpless.
Mrs. Bitchface stood there the whole time enjoying my discomfort. But did not fail to miss my increased discomfort at the PE shorts being suggested. She latched onto that idea like a hungry infant latches onto its mother’s swollen breast. Desperate and hungry. I will never forget the look of delight on her ugly face.
Off I went to retrieve my PE shorts and claim my rightful place of social outcast at Stephen Foster Junior High.
The greatest irony - my gym shorts were shorter than the ones I had on.
Inside I was torn up. I was angry and seething. Inside I had all sorts of rebellious thoughts. Inside I mounted a rebellion. Inside I was the kind of person that took off the fucking shorts and walked out of the school in her underwear. Inside I was destroyed.
Outside I did what I was told and held it together.
The effects of that day on me as a young girl were long lasting. I will never forget her telling me that my shorts were slutty. Seriously, jean shorts with little yellow tulips on the pockets were slutty!!!!!!!!!! I was 11. Underdeveloped and 11. I was not wearing 6 inch platforms and fishnets. I was wearing jean shorts.
In today’s society, we have a term that describes what she did to me. Slut-shaming.
Wikipedia defines as follows:
Slut-shaming is the practice of criticizing people, especially women and girls, who are perceived to violate expectations of behavior and appearance regarding issues related to sexuality. The term is used to reclaim the word slut and empower women and girls to have agency over their own sexuality. It may also be used in reference to gay men, who may face disapproval for sexual behaviors considered promiscuous. Slut-shaming rarely happens to heterosexual men.
Examples of slut-shaming include being criticized or punished for violating dress code policies by dressing in perceived sexually provocative ways, requesting access to birth control, having premarital, casual, or promiscuous sex, engaging in prostitution, or when being victim blamed for being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.
But we didn’t have that word back then. This was before consciousness was raised. This was back in the day where it was ok for a teacher to call a girl out for wearing shorts that were too short (even though they weren’t) and make her feel bad about herself. It was acceptable to describe her attire as “sluttly” and then force this same girl to wear other clothes that were arguably more revealing all in an effort to humiliate her.
I would love to tell you that Mrs. Bitchface didn’t win. But she did. I never one day since that day got dressed when I didn’t think about whether or not my attire was slutty. Now I will admit, in college when I asked myself that question, I sometimes answered yes and that was a good thing. But to this day, 37 years later, it still crosses my mind when I dress for work, a social event or go on a date. That one hateful act so many years ago made me ashamed and it is a belief that I have had a hard time shaking.
Maybe you are wondering why the fuck I am writing about this now...am I really still traumatized by this event? Well, as I just wrote, while traumatize might be a bit overdoing it, I was forever changed. I looked at myself differently and getting dressed to go anywhere became an exercise in judgment. A careful and well thought out planning and comparing what I was wearing to what others might say and think. In the end, I slut-shamed myself every day since in some way. I didn’t even know that I did that until just now. I never made the connection....But the reason this is all popping up is because my 12 year old daughter was just dress coded this week. Her egregious error - a crop top. Yep, the kind of shirts that all girls her age are wearing. Shirts that were being worn all over school that very same day. But for some reason, my daughter was dress coded and told that she needed to wear her jacket - her fleece jacket despite the outdoor temperature of well near 100.
She came home and said a lot of the same things I said when I was her age. She made all the same observations that I did. That there were other girls wearing shirts that were way worse than what she had on. The only reason she got dress coded was because she raised her arm and in so doing a little of her stomach showed.
I am angry. I am so angry that I have not been able to talk to the school because I have not been capable of having a rational conversation. I am pissed that our society thinks that they have the right to tell a girl what they can and can’t wear. I am pissed because it is acceptable to discriminate against our female children while the boys can wear whatever the fuck they want so long as they aren’t sporting gang signs and profanity. No one says anything about the boys shorts that reveal their “boyhood”. No one would dare say that.
So I am angry. I am super pissed off about the fact that almost 40 years has gone by and not much has changed despite the fact that so much has changed. I am pissed that society still believes that they have the right to modulate women and girls' attire. I am pissed that schools hide behind the bullshit idea that they are only trying to provide an environment conducive to learning. Fuck that. They are slut-shaming and I am going to call it what it is.
My daughter is a much more secure and well rounded person than I was. She is as sensitive and I am sure that being dressed coded was probably more upsetting than she let on. She is a rule follower and lives in constant fear of breaking any rule. Except my rule about putting things back where she got them - that rule she is fine to break - the rest of them - she follows. This beautiful, kind, loving daughter who tells me that the worst thing I can ever say to her is that I am disappointed in her. Hasn’t even been in junior high for two weeks and is already reeling from being shamed because her shirt was too short.
I haven’t decided what I am going to do yet. I do not want to make it worse for her. I do not want to cause her to suffer more. I do not want to project my old wounds onto her. But I also do not want her to feel bad about herself because she likes crop tops that are being peddled to teens all over the country. I do not want her to alter her thinking about her attire every time she gets dressed for the next four decades. I do not want her to think that her body is something that should be hidden or that it is wrong. I do not want her to think for one-second that anything she wears gives anyone else the right to treat her badly. I do not want her to feel that her choice of shirt equals loose or questionable morals. It is a fucking shirt on a wholesome kid. It is a young girl trying walk through innocence and purity to adolescence where she gets to experiment with sex and sexy. I want her more than anything else to be able to arrive in womanhood proud of her body. Present in her body. Respectful of her body. I want her to realize that the things she wears communicates things about her to others because of who they are not because of who she is. I want her to wear whatever the fuck she wants because she feels good about wearing it. I want her to feel good about her. Because she is good to her very core.
What I do not want is for anyone to be able to take that from her. And I realize that while I can rail against the establishment, I am just one voice, voicing an unpopular view. And while internally I want to mount an insurrection with the school board, externally I lack the time and the fortitude to fight the fight for other women’s daughters.
But I will publish this. And I will let her read it. I will not be silent about my disdain for any dress code for girls. I will encourage her to not be silent either. I will be open to whatever action I feel compelled to take next as well as any action she feels compelled to take. I will be the voice that tells my daughter and her friends that it is who you are on the inside that matters. How you dress up the outside doesn’t change that. Regardless of how short your shorts or how cropped your top. Clothing is not morality or chastity. Clothing is fucking clothing. And I will not be silent about that.