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Dress codes embody old bigotry

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The concept of a dress code, like most systems society likes to fetishize, isn’t inherently bad. It’s meant to maintain standards for presentability, respectability, and professionalism. It represents values that are collectively held in high esteem by members of the society it originates from. Or rather, it often represents values that are regarded as being worthy of aspiration by the few in power, based on their prejudices and biases, and which are then imposed on the section of the population under their control. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but, like most social structures, it is poorly defined and therefore open to misinterpretation and manipulation.

Last month, Kansas Senator Mitch Holmes wrote a guideline for the Kansas Senate Ethics and Election Committee, which details etiquette and rules for testifying witnesses. The second rule on the guideline reads: “Conferees should be dressed in professional attire. For ladies, low-cut necklines and miniskirts are inappropriate.” Nowhere does it detail at what length does a skirt become a miniskirt. Nor does it list any restrictions specific to men. After several days of attention scrutiny from the media, he retracted his statement. However, this case isn’t an outlier. This is merely a relatively harmless example of a much larger phenomenon, something so normalized that we often forget it’s even happening.

In March, Maggie Sunseri, a student at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Kentucky, released a documentary titled Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code chronicling the experiences of girls at the school. Over the course of the documentary, we find out that the teachers enforce the school dress code unequally. In particular, girls are called out way more often than boys for breaches in the dress code, leading to loss of class time, trips to the principal’s office, and public humiliation. An example of the unreasonable nature of their policies is the criterion that girls shouldn’t expose their collarbones. However, it is the principle behind this that is even more disturbing. In the documentary, Principal Akers comments that problems with sexual harassment had been a motivating factor in the stricter implementation of the dress code. In particular, “certain outfits that [female students] wore created this situation where guys would make inappropriate statements, and there was a distraction to the learning environment based on what some of the folks were wearing at school.” And of course the way to change this is to limit the girls’ freedom. A high school junior in the film states that the implementation of the dress code is sexist to both men and women since it “perpetuates the notion that a woman’s body is inherently more sexual than a man’s body, and that young boys’ natural tendencies are to harass or assault women.”

This specific instance points to the larger problem of trying to create guidelines for a topic as tied to gender roles a clothing is in our society. It ultimately comes down to the fact that society considers men and women to be different in more ways than just certain biological features. They’re also supposed to have distinct personalities and priorities, both of which are reflected in their choices of clothing. This is reflected in the numerous double standards in workplace dress codes that are so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice their existence. For example, men aren’t allowed long hair, facial piercings or make up in many jobs in the service industry, while women are often forced to dress in hypersexualized clothing such as skinny jeans and heels. And God forbid if you’re outside the gender binary! A 2013 GSLN survey showed that 19 percent of LGBT students were prevented from wearing clothes that were thought to be from another gender while nearly 32 percent of transgender students were prevented from wearing clothes that differed from those designated for their legal sex.

Our social institutions are a reflection of who we are as a collective, and until very recently, we were extremely sexist, homophobic, and plain bigoted. Therefore, it makes sense that these conventions have bled into daily lives, our subconscious even, until we find it hard to imagine a world without them. When was the last time you saw a man in a skirt, or a woman in a crop top and yoga pants walk by on the street without attracting stares (for very different reasons, I know)? I’m not saying this can, or will, change overnight. However, the first step is always to recognize that there is a problem.