Letter to School District Regarding Their Dress Code - Rape Culture At Work
I am a new mother in the Cherry Creek School District and my four children are or will be attending the various schools within the district. My oldest son just started in sixth grade at Laredo Middle School. My two middle sons are currently in first and fourth grade at Indian Ridge Elementary while my daughter is still a toddler. As a new parent I received a number of documents upon my arrival, including the Laredo Middle School dress code. As I expected it is unfortunately yet another example of rape culture at work. I use that expression carefully knowing full well its implications and understanding it may elicit strong reactions. “Rape culture” is defined as, “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” A lynch pin of rape culture is the idea that women’s clothing and their bodies are sources of uncontrollable distraction, thoughts, urges and actions in members of the opposite sex. Because of these uncontrollable effects, sexual assault and abuse become normalized as natural consequences of a woman being a woman and not sufficiently hiding the physical attributes conventionally associated with womanhood. This is exactly what the dress code does. It reinforces certain social attitudes which, in turn, normalize sexual harassment and lay the blame for it on women. While I am certain your dress code did not intend these results it certainly creates them, which is why I am taking the time to write to you.
Your dress code, while not explicitly saying so, focuses on girls’ bodies and the extent to which they are covered. You dictate the length of skirts and dresses (which are traditionally worn by girls), you demand that nobody wear “spaghetti straps” (which are traditionally worn by girls) and you make the usual requests regarding covering breasts, stomachs, and shoulders. You are not only body shaming girls, you are also implicitly laying the groundwork for slut shaming and also being an unwitting part of rape culture. As dress codes usually do, your dress code teaches girls that their bodies are sexual and that their sexual bodies are distracting to boys. You teach them that the thoughts that the boys are having are the result of their bodies. You teach them that the actions that boys have in response to those bodies are the girls' fault and that the way to avoid the distraction and inappropriateness of those thoughts and actions is for the girls to cover up. That is incorrect. The way for distraction to stop is for boys and girls to immediately work on seeing each other as people, entitled to their own bodies and with an inalienable right to be left in peace in an educational setting. Now, you may respond that you are asking for is a school where people dress appropriately. This is undoubtedly a legitimate position. However, in practice “appropriateness” falls squarely on the bare (or not bare) shoulders of girls and this needs to stop.
Indeed, my ten-year-old son came home from an informational session about the dress code, and the first thing he said was, "Mom, you're right. It's all about the girls!" Evidently, even if the dress code on its face may appear neutral to you, and it certainly did not to me, the messaging is absolutely not neutral. This is something I wanted to bring to the District’s attention to hopefully spark a constructive conversation about how we can do better. In fact, I believe that the best way to bring about positive change is to offer solutions, not only criticism. In that spirit, here are some further comments
For starters, I am not advocating for the abolition of a dress code. Given the student population you are dealing with (middle schoolers), a dress code in itself is probably indicated. Your students, as you know, are exploring a whole world of new feelings and experiences while living in rapidly changing bodies. I would also note that the entirety of the dress code is not inappropriate. Some portions are in fact gender neutral. For example, the request that nobody wear visible undergarments is fair and can apply to all. However, as noted above, there is significant room for improvement.
Further, while more controversial, you may also want to broach the subjects of rape culture and slut shaming. You can specifically explain that the dress code applies to boys and girls and that no matter what a person wears, they are entitled to respect, a safe learning environment, and autonomy. We could also use this opportunity to address the fact that clothing is not a distraction and that we are all responsible for our own focus and each student is in control of their commitment to their education. (Of course, some of this will fall on deaf ears—we are dealing with middle schoolers—but the messaging would at least be constructive, rather than destructive, of girls’ autonomy). Maybe we can also address the fact that no matter how someone dresses, they are not there to be ogled at and that every student, regardless of gender, is there to learn and is not responsible for what is happening in their peers’ heads.
I hope you will take this letter constructive feedback. As the mother of three boys and one girl, I am vigilant about the impact gender discourse has on our youth. Given the current state of rape culture on college campuses, we have much room for improvement. Let us not forget that among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. www.rainn.org. That is nearly a quarter of college-attending women. That number is abhorrent. Certainly, if any part of our children’s education is reinforcing certain mindsets which normalize sexual violence against women and make it harder for them to report it, we should address it.
What can we do in middle school is to teach boys and girls that all of us, including boys, are always responsible for our actions and, most critically, that girls' bodies are not there and cannot be defined by, what they do or do not do to boys' minds. Girls’ bodies are just that: their bodies. They are theirs to have autonomy over and they are theirs to love and to cherish in however way they see fit in line with their level of maturity and their age. To the extent we are not doing this, I ask that we take a moment to reconsider our actions.
I thank you in advance for your attention and look forward to a successful year at Laredo Middle School.