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Why couldn’t I fight dress codes in high school?

By Marisa Milone

Ah, the days of high school. The days where any sort of distraction would happily spice up the monotony of sitting for 7 hours straight, 5 days a week. One scandal in particular that sticks out clearly to me was the day that leggings and yoga pants were deemed unacceptable for girls to wear to school.  When I was in high school, leggings were making a comeback from the 80s. I myself did not own any of these pants, so I didn’t have to worry about detention or suspension, but I felt a crude sense of injustice for my fellow females all the same.

I went to public school all my life and wasn’t subjected to wearing a uniform. Nevertheless, my options for what I was allowed to wear were restricted.

I could not wear any shirt where the sleeves were less than three fingers width wide. I could not wear halter tops, or spaghetti strap tank tops. I could not wear shorts or skirts that went above my fingertips when my hands were placed at my side. As for the boys; they weren’t allowed to wear pants that showed their underwear. Tough.

Growing up in New England meant that these sorts of restrictions weren’t really an issue unless it was the beginning or the end of the year. Once winter rolled around, dress code limitations were the last thing on my mind—until the leggings and yoga pants fiasco happened.

Naturally, the girls who were affected by this new rule rebelled. A day for leggings and yoga pants was created the week after the rule was instated. On this day, all the girls against the rule were to wear their leggings together on a specific date. The idea was that they couldn’t all be put in detention, could they? Yes. They could, and they did. I remember our assistant principal and other administrators going around during the school day and handing out detention slips to all the students wearing leggings or yoga pants. Soon enough, not a thread of spandex could be found in my school.

Why was this type of clothing for girls in a school setting deemed unacceptable in the first place? Let’s do a little question and answer between my 21-year-old and 16-year-old selves to get to the bottom of this.

21-year-old me: Why aren’t you allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants?

16-year-old me: Because it’s distracting.

21 y/o: It’s distracting to whom?

16 y/o: To the boys in my classes.

21 y/o: Why is it so distracting though?

16 y/o: Because boys can’t help but look at our bodies.

21 y/o: Well guess what? Yes they can! Boys and men—like all human beings—have the behavioral capacity to prioritize their duties. They have the ability to focus on their schoolwork instead of what is in their immediate eye-line. If this were the case, then how can we give drivers licenses to boys when there are pictures of Victoria’s Secret models on billboards everywhere? They are held responsible for focusing then, so what makes school different?  Saying that boys don’t have control over their behavior is an insult to all men. 

16 y/o: Wait a second, you are so right. Boys are totally capable of focusing on their school work even if there is a shoulder visible. That is so not fair that girls should have to change what they are comfortable wearing just to make it “easier” for the boys.

With just one small instance of time travel, I could have provided 16-year-old me with the beginning tools of how to fight this sort of sexism against young women.

But wait, why is this sort of time travel necessary in the first place? Oh wait, that’s right, because I wasn’t provided with any sort of education on feminism in high school. People telling me what I could and could not wear was a normal part of my life. My parents made sure my outfit was appropriate for public before I left the house, my friends made sure it was socially acceptable, TV and media told me what I should be wearing, and finally the school system telling me to keep my body in check so boys could receive their education distraction-free.

I couldn’t fight these sort of rules placed on me because of my gender because I didn’t know that it wasn’t right. Over my four years of college and various Women’s Studies courses I began to gain my own understanding of feminism and what it means to me. My own understanding would not be possible without learning the formal definition of feminism, which is, “the political, social and economic equality of sexes and the practice of that belief.”

Before college, if I had been asked if I was a feminist, I would have said no. Feminism to me was pointless. Feminists hated men and didn’t shave their legs. Women had a right to vote and were never treated differently. To the best of my understanding, women were equal to men. Yet, I didn’t recognize that these restrictions on just what I was wearing were biased against girls only. Come on, really? I couldn’t wear a certain shirt or a certain pair of pants because they would reveal certain parts of my body that would stimulate the boys so much that they wouldn’t be able to focus on their school work. Nonetheless, everywhere we turn there are women pictured in far more revealing outfits (if any at all) than the normal school girl who just wants to wear a pair of leggings.

My dress code in high school showed me an important thing about life: to keep people docile, you have to keep them uneducated. The other girls and I didn’t have the education to understand that we were being discriminated against just for the benefit of the boys in our class. We were shut down after one attempt. The problem was that we didn’t know how to fight the administration with anything other than sheer numbers. We had learned about the women’s right to vote, but not the fact that it took over 70 years to achieve. Never once had I learned the dictionary definition of what feminism was. Without feminism I wasn’t able to recognize the fact that I, and the girls at my high school, were being discriminated against.

Marisa Milone is a senior majoring in English/literature and minoring in women’s studies.

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