In How Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture a student quotes her school’s reasoning for their strict dress code: “ There are male teachers and male sixth formers [high school seniors] Teachers feel uncomfortable around bras etc. Don’t want the boys to target you or intimidate you.” Throughout history, dress codes have been required in most schools. These dress codes aim to have a focus of appropriate attire that does not bring any distractions into a student’s learning environment during their focused time of learning. However, recently researchers are pointing out that strict dress code regulations aimed at females can be leading to the sexualization of young school girls. According to the American Psychological Association sexualization is when: “-a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or ︎ sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Through dress codes, young women are learning that their bodies are something to hide and be ashamed of, leading to sexualization and self-objectification. Although the intentions may be pure, pointed dress codes in the American school system today are bringing about sexualization and self-objectification in young women, leading to lower self-esteem and more anxiety, impacting their mental and emotional health. By revamping school dress codes to be less pointed at young women’s sexuality, the mental and emotional health of young women can be improved. Mandy Weidenheft Page !2 The current generation of young women is being told by their school system that they can achieve anything, while also being told that their bodies are a hinderance and a distraction to those around them, specifically young men.
This simultaneously empowering and derogatory message can confuse young women, and lead to unhealthy consequences. In Objectification Theory and Psychology of Women: A Decade of Advances and Future Directions it is detailed that sexual objectification experiences lead to self-objectification, which can lead to greater body shame and greater anxiety, increasing the chances of eating disorders and depression developing in young women. Additionally, in “Predicting Objectification: Do Provocative Clothing and Observer Characteristics Matter?” the authors described that objectification can lead to more focus on physical aspects of a person like their weight and attractiveness, at the expense of psychological characteristics such as intelligence or conscientiousness.
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School-aged young girls are ages 5-18, and are spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in school communities. During their time in school, they are learning invaluable knowledge about mathematics, language, and art. Simultaneously during this time, young women are subconsciously learning that their bodies are hindering the education of young men around them. This contradiction can lead to confusion and impact a young woman’s self-esteem. “On the one hand, girls are taught to be strong and competitive, to exemplify 'girl power,’ and to achieve at exceptional educational and professional levels. On the other hand, contemporary adolescents are bombarded with cultural messages that portray girls and women according to limiting sexual stereotypes. Further, they are socialized to believe Mandy Weidenheft Page !3 that their power and worth are primarily based upon their sexual appeal.”
As Time Magazine so boldly states: “Some of our most powerful and lasting ideas about the world around us are learned at school. Hard work pays off. Success comes from working together. Girls’ bodies are dangerous and harassment is inevitable.” The young women are growing up and learning how to become leaders, innovators, women who will change the world. If these young women are also being told during this formative time that their value is in their body, this impacts how these young women will walk boldly into the world, and this message will shape the next generation of CEO’s, mothers, doctors, and business owners. Mandy Weidenheft Page !4 Dr. Maddy Coy points out in Milkshakes, Lady Lumps and Growing Up to Want Boobies: How the Sexualisation of Popular Culture Limits Girls’ Horizons, “Sexualization narrows girls ‘space for action’, their aspirations and achievements by re-defining femininity and beauty as of most importance” Telling young ladies that their value comes from their bodies leads to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders all across the next generation of women.
However, when a young woman is taught that her mind is the most important part of her body, she can walk boldly and confidently into the world, know her mind matters more than how curvy she is. This mindset of confidence needs to be enforced daily, but most especially where young women spend a great portion of time in their formative years: their schools. Young women deserve to have a learning environment that is focused purely on learning, not one where they are called out of class and sent home due to their clothing. If a young lady is more concerned about if her lack of a bra will get her sent home than getting an education, the focus of the school in question has shifted. Of course, every school does need to have guidelines about what is appropriate, as a student cannot simply show up to school wearing nothing.
However, school dress code policies can be adjusted to make a school environment one that is focused purely on the best learning environment for all students. An adjusted dress code policy would focus on both genders, not just females, propels this. If schools are continually pushing a dress code that subconsciously propels the sexualization of the young women under it, the “consequences of sexualization are multifaceted and occur at the individual, interpersonal, and societal levels.” Mandy Weidenheft Page !5 Naturally, every bold statement will have an opposition. Those who oppose this statement will likely agree with the school dress code policy quoted at the beginning of the article-that young women are responsible for controlling male’s urges.
That young women are responsible for making sure those around them are comfortable and unaroused in their learning environment. However, when the statement that a man’s learning environment is more important than a woman’s, the American school system jumps backwards decades. Additionally, when womenfeel it is their responsibility to keep men from sexualizing them, we propel the idea that women are natural caretakers, and must take care of everyone else before taking care of themselves. This inappropriate sexualization also can build the negative ideas of rape culture that tell a woman it is her responsibility to keep herself from being raped rather than a man’s responsibility to not rape her. Through empowering young women in their dress codes rather than sexualizing them, the next generation of American women becomes a stronger and bolder group that will continue to empower the women around them, building the nation up, one female at a time.
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