Thursday, August 27, 2015

What's the Message?

We're back to school in Howard County and already we have reports of young women being "dress-coded" for dubious reasons. And yes, it's young women. The enforcement of the "unduly exposes or reveals skin or undergarments" is being imposed primarily on teenaged girls who are dressing appropriately for the hot end of summer weather.

It is easy to think that this is happening to students who are deliberately trying to cause problems by wearing scandalously revealing attire. It isn't. It's happening to students who are at school, ready to learn, whose only crime is that their tank top straps aren't "enough fingers wide" or whose shorts don't quite meet that fingertip rule. It is happening to young women who are perhaps too curvy by the school's standards, whose legs are just a little too long. Maybe if her body were different, she could slip by unnoticed. Maybe.

I send my daughter to school to learn, not to have her body judged or shamed.

Yesterday I read this post by Alice Marks of HoCoHouseHon. In "Street Harassment and Freedom" she recounts a personal experience at the Mall in Columbia where a strange man got right up in her personal space and whispered sexually explicit things in her ear.

A man in the mall - who was bigger than me, and definitely threatening - decided it was his right to speak low and thick in my ear and reduce me to an object, a plaything, an animal. If you, jerk faces, think I was asking for it, you're even more deluded than you appear. You'd like to blame your behavior on those slutty women who wear what they want, sleep with who they want, take birth control, are feminists - but the truth is, I was just a woman in jeans with a red nose and a hacking cough, holding hands with my husband.

Make no mistake. The capricious and body-shaming enforcement of a dress code, almost exclusively on young women, and the actions of this strange man at the mall are two sides of the same coin. They say, "I can stop you. I can shame you. You are powerless. Your body is not your own."

As parents we have an opportunity to push back against a mindset which demeans both young women and young men. Girls are not distractions. Boys do not need to be slavishly protected from their own sexual feelings. The education of one group is not more important than that of the other. We have a responsibility to enter into discussions with teachers and administrators about what constitutes healthy boundaries for our teens.

Marks goes on in her essay to say,

When we own our bodies, when we make choices, when we have power, we are free.

That is the message we ought to be teaching.


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