These days, I’m finding my sense of style as an adult. I’ve got both the weird and the sophisticated, remnants of my hippie phase, and stuff that looks flattering on my figure and makes me feel good about myself. One noticeable thing, though, is that my wardrobe is relatively conservative; I tend to shy away from things like low-cut tops and short skirts, and while there are a few causations for this, I can pinpoint an early influencer.
As a preteen, I could not wait for high school. It seemed like a Hollywood-esque place where you could express yourself and be whoever you wanted to be, and let’s face it – one of the most obvious forms of expression is through image. What you wear, how you do your makeup or style your hair – as a young person, this is your outlet.
The summer before my freshman year, my school introduced a new dress code, and I was heartbroken. No graphic tees, no athletic clothes, sweats, shorts or skits above the knee, no deep cut v-necks that show cleavage (while I don’t have a copy of the handbook anymore, I do vividly remember that it actually stated ‘cleavage’). There were, of course, exceptions; cheerleaders’ skirts were right below the hoo-ha, and athletes could wear tracksuits on game days, but I digress…
That year, I had to properly go back to school shopping, effectively replacing and questioning much of my wardrobe; replacing – no more band tees or logos, shorts and skirts that hit mid-thigh (we all remember the ol’ fingertips rule from middle school), and questioning – becoming incredibly self-conscious of my changing body and wondering whether the scoop necks and v-necks I’d been wearing for the past couple of years were suddenly too suggestive on my, uh, 14-YEAR-OLD BODY.
On the first day of school I wore a high scoop-neck grey dress that went to my knees. I remember our homeroom teacher introducing himself, taking roll call, and then scanning the room, analysing whether each and every one of us was in violation of the dress code, issuing write-ups as ‘necessary.’ That day, I was fine.
The second day of school, I wore a plain v-neck shirt that completely covered me, the neckline meeting the middle of my clavicle, right above my chest. When I got dressed that morning, I thought I looked fine; when I got to homeroom and my teacher did the scan, my stomach dropped, and I became incredibly self-conscious. He pointed at me and said, ‘borderline.’ Walking over to me to give me my write-up, he looked at me (aka, my top; aka, my chest) again to confirm his decision. ‘Borderline,’ he said once more.
I was written up once more at the end of that year for wearing a skirt that sat right above my knees (read: not at my knees). Since it was my second write-up, I was sent to in-school suspension. I – antisocial introvert, good student, stays-home-on-the-weekends, has no interest in boys – was in ISS. This was my Freaky Friday moment.
When my history teacher got wind of this, she came down to ISS to see me, looked at my outfit as a group of girls wearing skirts shorter than mine walked by, and gave me a look that said ‘what the fuck.’ She tried to think of a solution – she rode horses and offered me her riding pants from her car, though she told me they were covered in mud and would be too big on me. While we couldn’t come up with a solution in the end, I will forever remember and be grateful for her validation.
At the time, I was irked by these rules because I thought, a) why can’t express myself by wearing what I want, and b) why can’t I dress for the weather if it’s a warm day?
When I reflect on the rules today, my previous feeling of ‘irked’ is elevated to ‘ripshit pissed.’ Yes, girls should be able to dress for expression and the weather, but the issue here lies in sexualising underage bodies.
Why ask teachers to scrutinise the bodies of adolescents? Why impose the accountability of unto the dressers, not the perpetrators of sexual misconduct? Why assume that girls’ utmost consideration in dressing themselves is for sexual appeal?