Dissecting the dress code debate

I’m going to be talking about the school dress code controversies that seem to be coming up more and more frequently. Before I begin, I just want to point out that I am a cisgender male college student; I have never been a teenaged girl, at whom these dress codes are predominantly targeted, nor have I ever been a school administrator. I have very little experience with dress codes and anything that I can add to the conversation will be academic at best. I’m going to try to throw in my two cents and I may end up offending everyone except Nebraskans, who are using this rolled-up paper to keep their pigs at bay. This should be fun.

As of writing this piece, the most recent example of the dress code debate is the so-called “Pretty Woman” scandal in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, where girls wearing leggings were shown scenes from the Julia Roberts movie in an effort to show them the effects of their clothing on other people’s judgments. The obvious problem here is the comparison between these girls and a prostitute. But this comparison, regardless of intention, begs one of the largest questions of modern feminism: is overt sexuality empowering to young women or ultimately overshadowing of their other attributes?

Let’s take a moment to decouple this question with young women; we can look towards its most famous example: strippers. Does the stripper empower herself by controlling her sexuality on her own terms, using it to make money from brainless saps who throw money at her, or is she just reinforcing the belief that she is only useful for her body? I don’t know the answer to that, and I doubt there really is one, but this example creates an interesting, albeit overly simplified, logical conclusion for our question, because we are talking about teenagers, not strippers.

If we assume that overt sexuality is empowering to women, then young women’s choice to wear leggings – even if that choice is deemed “provocative” by some corners of society – should not be held against them.

If, on the other hand, overt sexuality is generally disempowering to women, then we can again see that there is no problem in this case, because leggings are designed to be comfortable, not distracting. Compare this to a similarly-aged woman who wears lingerie to school. Since the purpose of lingerie is titillation, the issue would become relevant.

This brings us to the next part of the argument against leggings in school: the distraction it causes for others (namely, straight boys). Here I could just restate the old argument ad nauseam. And I will, because apparently some people need to be told again: it is not someone’s fault if they are being ogled; it’s the fault of the person ogling them. That’s always true.

But let’s remember one thing when looking at the dress code debate: everyone in high school is distracted by sex. Straight boys are distracted by girls no matter their outfits and vice versa, gay boys are distracted by boys, lesbians are distracted by girls, bisexuals are distracted by both and asexuals are distracted by the fact that they aren’t distracted by anyone.

If we worry so much about leggings, we’re ignoring not only the futility of trying to stop sexual distractions, but the fact that a high school isn’t just a bunch of straight boys and the people they stare at when they’re bored. Maybe if we acknowledge that fact, we can stop putting so much effort into controlling what young women wear and I can go back to writing about space.

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