Elbows to Ankles

I’ve been speaking with the mom of a high school girl who was told at school this morning that her dress to her knees, cardigan to her elbows, and leggings underneath was inappropriate for school. The only skin this girl was showing was her forearms and hands. A school official told her boys were being distracted by her leggings and she would need to change. The girl asked if she should just remove her legs. The girl’s mother responded to the school official saying the problem was not her daughter’s legs but the boys’ behavior.

This is why I am against mandated t-shirts at pool parties, sexist dress codes, and the backwards Puritan belief our abstinence-is-best culture in the United States has – especially in our high schools and middle schools – that by forcing girls to cover up and not teaching kids about sex they won’t become sexual beings until they magically arrive at college and know how to behave, dress, and respond to each other. Girls’ bodies are not the problem. Our response to them, is.

Yes, I am profoundly against the sexualization of children and the media’s objectification of women. That is not the same thing as being anti-sex, or obtuse to the fact that our children will become sexual beings with sexual urges. That part I’m cool with.

I live in and am raising a daughter in a culture where men are attracted to every part of a woman’s body because I live in a sexually repressed culture, propagated by attitudes that females should cover up to avoid inevitable sexual arousal. I live in a culture where men are sexually attracted to my mouth, my eyes, my hair, my shoulders, my breasts, my hips, my butt, my legs, my toes….which is their issue, not mine. I will not hide away any part of my being – not my body, not my voice, not my mind. I dress how I want in a way that makes me feel amazing and I walk through my world with confidence and self-respect. I walk through my world in a way that very clearly sends the message to men they will respect me, regardless of what body part they may or may not be looking at. I am making sure my daughter is learning to do the same. I don’t view sexuality as a shameful thing. Acting disrespectfully towards another being in a sexual way is shameful. I am making sure my daughter and my son know that men and boys are intelligent beings capable of empathy, kindness, and self-control.

Sexuality in general means various people will find various body parts arousing. The basis to the argument that body parts should be covered up to avoid arousal places the onus on the viewee as opposed to the viewer. That argument feeds directly into Rape Culture and overall shaming of the female body as a vessel of sin and corruption of men/boys that must remain covered so as to avoid any sexual attraction. This leads to the removal of agency from females and gives entitlement to men as female bodies have shifted from sexual beings to objects they can police. This argument also leads to the expectation that boys/men cannot control themselves at any hint of sexual arousal and females must do all they can to not wake the beast.

Sexual arousal happens when women are fully covered – in military uniforms, burkas, business attire, a winter coat. Are we to stay completely out of sight?

There is no shame in our daughters' bodies growing into a woman's form.

There is no shame in our daughters’ bodies growing into a woman’s form.

I cannot disagree more with that framework of thinking. I do not believe in asking females to cover their bodies and being responsible for avoiding any hint of sexuality or sexual arousal.

I believe males are capable of controlling themselves. I believe human sexuality is not a shameful thing and should not be repressed.

I believe strongly we teach those becoming sexually aroused to control themselves, teach them to better understand the nature of sex and how to respond appropriately and respectfully to it.

I would never make my son nor my daughter wear a t-shirt to cover their body. I will make every effort to teach them openly about sexuality in a sex positive way.

Yes, students should dress appropriately for school. Don’t wear Saturday on a Wednesday. Yes, we should teach our girls the difference between objectifying themselves sexually and feeling, experiencing their sexuality.

But when we live in a country where day after day girls all across our nation are being told by the media to be sexy all the time, being told by their hearts to find the person they are, being told by their schools their education is less valuable than a boy’s and to cover up/go home/sit in detention because their distracting body caused a boy to look at them even when they are covered from elbow to ankle……we’ve got problems.

Bigger than any baggy t-shirt can cover.

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UPDATE: The following question was asked during our Facebook discussion and I thought it would be important to add it here. From Tristin, Okay I have a question. I 100% agree with everything you wrote above (and read your book and recommend it to everyone). I read in your book about talking to our daughters about establishing the personal brand they’d like to convey to the world, and I think this is a great tool. My question is, though, about what happens when our girls decide that a particular brand they wish to convey doesn’t fit with what we as parents deem age appropriate? Who is to say that 14 or 15 is too young to wear such and such outfit? It’s her body- shouldn’t she have the right to choose how much skin she shows? What happens when I as a parent disagree with her decisions about how she chooses to present her body? And also, who gets to decide what is age appropriate? Shouldn’t a school have some say in this? But where is the line between making these decisions and policing girls’ bodies and choices?

My answer:  When girls choose a brand that we know to be age inappropriate or overtly focused on sex appeal vs whole being it is our job to coach and consult with them until they get it. It may take blood, sweat, and tears on our part, but we have to strike a balance between allowing her to develop into her own sexuality and keeping her age appropriate and not buying into copying what the media is grooming her to do.
If she is dressing in a sexually provocative way that is age inappropriate she clearly isn’t choosing that for herself, she’s been groomed to do it and is parroting what she’s learned – probably from the media and other girls. Since this decision isn’t coming from a place of authenticity it is okay to say, “No, you won’t be wearing that and here’s why. Please go choose a more appropriate outfit for an 11yo girl. When you are 19 and come home from college, that outfit will be fine. Today you are 11yo and you will dress like it.”
Again, not shaming, just teaching her there is a time and place for sexy. 11yo is never it. 14/15yo isn’t it. 16, 17, 18….I think that is generally the age where girls are moving beyond having crushes on boys (or girls) to really understanding the want to have sexual encounters and figuring out how to facilitate that. I remember that age. I remember knowing exactly what I was doing.

All I can say to that: each family needs to approach that in a way that feels comfortable for them. That will be different for each family. I am very open with my kids about sexuality and the human body, but that doesn’t mean they watch sexualized media now and that doesn’t mean I’ll want them feeling free to have sex in high school. The hormones will certainly be there, the emotional maturity a sexual relationship requires will not be. In that sense, they can wait.

Allowing her to develop a personal brand doesn’t mean she gets to do whatever she wants. It means you let her show you who she wants to be in the world and then we act like parents and say “I think you’ve made great choices” or, “I think that outfit sends some strong messages that you may not be aware of, or are aware of and then I’d like to talk to you about why you seem to focus on that one small part of you instead of all of you.” So it isn’t about shaming her, rather teaching her she is more than the sum of her parts and that there is more to life and one’s self-esteem than getting sexually-motivated attention from guys (or girls).

And you have to allow her to make mistakes. Talk to her about them and help her learn from them. As well as, help her learn from the mistakes of others’ because in high school I was sexually objectified while wearing my normal clothes, my cheer uniform, my soccer uniform, my uniform at the grocery store I worked at……you get the picture.

As you can see – these are all private, delicate conversations with a trusted individual that for 98% of girls will not be their school. This isn’t one conversation, it is ongoing little convos that help a girl develop her brand and in that, allow her the space to come into her own and allow her sexuality to actualize. That is a beautiful part of life and being a woman.
And I don’t want my child’s school having any part of that, nor policing it.

 

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Don’t Wear Saturday On A Wednesday

 

I get asked frequently how I feel about dress codes or what my opinion is on the most recent story in the news of a parent and their daughter defying an imposing school dress code. My opinion is that school dress codes are necessary in an age when young men’s fashion is overly casual and so much of the young women’s apparel on the market is sexualized and girls are encouraged from childhood to sexually objectify themselves in order to gain social worth. The problem is not with girls, but everything and every one around them.

I will forever support girls demonstrating agency and using their voices. I think school dress codes, the way many are written, include multiple forms of body shaming and gendered double standards. I abhor the idea of reprimanding female students by sending them home or forcing them to wear bulky, baggy clothing as a slut-shaming dunce cap. The word “modesty” gives me hives.

At the same time, when you are a student school is your job. Dress like it. Show up ready to do your job. Respecting your role is a form of respecting yourself and what you are at school to do.

Days of the Week

It is this simple: Don’t wear Saturday on a Wednesday.

^I learned that phrase during a discussion with my colleague Julia V. Taylor (author, “Body Image Workbook For Teens“) who told me a principal she used to work with would say it to her teaching staff when they were dressed too casually or inappropriately for their profession.

 

This concept teaches our kids, girls specifically, three very important things:

1. There is a time and place for different manners of dress without shaming what those different styles may be or wanting to explore those different styles.
2. It still allows for agency and does not lend to body shaming and Rape Culture. The focus shifts from a young girl’s body to what is the appropriate attire for the time/place/function.
3. It teaches young people who have been immersed in a sexualized culture since birth there is no requirement to be sexy at all times. It teaches self-awareness.

 

But what do high school dress codes look like in practice and how do they impact students?

High school prom knock-out Alexus Miller-Wigfall. (Image via Hello Giggles)

High school prom knock-out Alexus Miller-Wigfall. (Image via Hello Giggles)

High school student Alexus Miller-Wigfall was going to receive an in-school suspension for this dress deemed inappropriate. Say whaaaa??? The dress is long-sleeved and floor length. Alexus and her date look stunning and elegant. Alexus’ mother believes the decision came because of Alexus’ curves. Even when completely covered, girls are still punished for going out in public with their bodies. In 2015. In America. In France, girls can’t win no matter what they are wearing.

Today’s high school girls ABSOLUTELY should be challenging body shaming and sexist dress codes, which is most effectively done when not sexually objectifying themselves. Leggings? Bare shoulders? Fine. Side-boob, under butt and bare midriff? Come, let’s have a little chat about how we dress for the job of learning……

In theory, this sign is great. In application, it just doesn’t work for me.

Student response to what was felt to be a sexist school dress code.

Student response to what was felt to be a sexist school dress code.

 

Today’s high school girls should be able to decide for themselves what to wear to class. Leggings and a tunic? Great, get to class on time. Society will not fall because we can see the outline of your hamstring. At the same time, today’s high school girls cannot undo thousands of years of human sexuality and biological responses to visual sexual stimuli. There is a balance between body shaming our female students and using common sense about being human beings with innate sexuality. There is a time and place for sexy. Being fifteen years old and sitting in Algebra is not it. Pubescent heterosexual boys are going to take in interest in female bodies, therefore girls in tiny shorts, bra straps, enormous amounts of cleavage in barely-there tank tops are distracting. The onus is on the boys to refocus and act respectfully because teenage girls are deserving of respect no matter what they do, or don’t, have on. And girls should respect their institution of learning and their education by dressing like Wednesday. Not Saturday.

The topic of school dress codes is not a zero sum game. Yes, fight against the idea that female bodies and sexuality are sinful, distracting, and something to be monitored/controlled/punished by a higher (most likely male) power. Yes, fight against dress codes that punish sexually mature female bodies and plus-sized, curvy bodies. Yes, teach boys even when a girl is dressed in a way that catches their eye they are still fully expected to react respectfully towards that person and they are fully responsible for their words and behavior towards that person.

At the same time – write school dress codes in a way that is gender inclusive and lists for students what is appropriate and professional attire for school Monday through Friday. Let’s help students identify and build up their personal brands as opposed to listing body parts and various forms of tight or revealing clothing that will apparently undo the education system and enlightening of the general public.

The education system has bigger problems and frankly, so do our students. Let’s keep the school’s focus where it should be – on the minds and intellect of the students. Hey school administrators, our brains are up here.

 

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (PP&BB).