Laura Finley, Ph.D.
A new school year has started or is about to start and once again public schools across the U.S. are clamoring to control girls’ bodies. The offender this time: my alma mater in Midwest Michigan. As of August 18, 2015, the district decided to prohibit the wearing of yoga pants, leggings and stretch pants when students return to the middle and high schools on September 8. The previous dress codes allowed these items as long as they were covered by another garment that was at least finger-tip length when students held their arms straight at their sides—basically, you could wear form-fitting pants as long as you wore something over top of them. Not surprisingly, students did not all follow that rule, which takes me back (way back) to my high school days when we thought it was imperative to wear shorts over our leggings. As is so often the case, the justification for such policy changes is framed as though it helps teachers and staff maintain an appropriate educational climate. The Superintendent commented, “We are not trying to impart style on our students … We just want to eliminate disruptions and distractions.” In reality, it seems these decisions are typically because someone or a vocal group alleges that “hormonal” boys cannot control themselves if they have to attend classes with girls who dare to show that they actually do have legs under their pants.
This district is by no means the first to adopt or consider adopting such a policy. Earlier this year, a North Dakota district determined that yoga pants were a “distraction,” noting that they might prompt boys to “focus on something other than schoolwork.” Evidently the school even asked students to watch the film “Pretty Woman” and compare their attire to the prostitute character played by Julia Roberts. Hundreds of middle school girls in Evanston, Illinois wore leggings to school in protest of a similar policy change. Students also held signs with slogans asking “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” More than 500 students signed a petition against the dress code.
In fall 2014, a group of students in New Jersey started the hashtag #Iammorethanadistraction to highlight the problems with school district policies that focus on girls alone. In spring 2015, Montana Republican state Rep. David Moore went so far as to propose HB 365, which was an effort to prohibit nudity as well as “any device, costume or covering that gives the appearance of or simulates the genitals, pubic hair, anus region, or pubic hair region.” At a hearing about the bill, Moore announced “Yoga pants should be illegal in public anyway.” In Missouri, state legislators decided that the problem was in that institution as well. They announced they are considering instituting a dress code for interns, ostensibly to “protect them” from sexual harassment.
This type of victim-blaming couched in paternalism is deeply problematic. We can oppress you, it says, but it’s for your own good. It’s not a matter of whether schools should be allowed to institute dress codes. Of course, they can and should. But these policies are not about students, they are about girls. And they reinforce a dangerous logic that if a girl looks a certain way then she is the problem.
Let’s be clear – like all human beings, the bodies of women and girls vary dramatically. So, yes, some girls will fill out their pants differently than others, or their shorts will be shorter because, hey, imagine that, they are taller. This human diversity should not be policed, especially not in a culture in which many girls already suffer from dramatic self-esteem decreases in these years due to concerns about their bodies. Schools (and other institutions) should indeed be concerned about sexual harassment, but requiring that the would-be victims change their behavior instead of the would-be offenders merely allows the perpetrators to absolve themselves from responsibility.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.