Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #2 (Dressed Down)

If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1

Challenge dress codes for girls and women.

Before we jump to “why,” please take a moment to complete these two short exercises (remember, you agreed to do some work):

1. If you have a child in school, 6th grade or older: please find a copy of the school’s handbook and jump to the section on dress codes. If you don’t have kids this age, head to the web page for your local high school; they should have their handbook posted online. How many rules are there for boys? How many for girls? Do the rules for boys focus mainly on sloppiness/professionalism? Do the rules for girls focus mainly on which parts of the body need to be covered and how much coverage is required? Mull this over for a minute or two.

2. Assuming that today was a “regular” work day for you (no big meetings, no job interview, no big cheese coming to the local office, etc.) how did you decide what to wear today? When choosing your clothes, what went through your mind. How/why did you come to be wearing what you are wearing right now? Mull this over for a minute too. Time for critical thinking is really important in feminism.


girls education

Dress codes put the onus for MEN’S behavior on women and girls. That’s messed up. We are each responsible for the choices we make, the behaviors we enact and the possible consequences. For example, I have ADD. Predictably, I am easily distracted; I have difficulty staying on task, doing more than one thing at a time and meeting deadlines. Yet, I don’t get to tell my boss, “sorry about that big project, ADD you know how it is.” Likewise, kids in school with ADD don’t just get to not do work because ALL OF SCHOOL is too distracting; they learn skills and tactics to work within their ability.

Let’s think through another analogical example. Picture it: you are strolling along, sipping your mega-large iced coffee on a 72-degree-and-breezy-day when you notice a clown walking toward you. You hate clowns. You loathe them. When the clown approaches, filled with rage, you punch her squarely on the jaw, shattering it. When law enforcement arrives on the scene, what happens? Do you, the officer, the witnesses and media start saying things like, “well, those weeeeere comically large shoes” or “the red sponge ball nose was a bit too faded.” No. You are arrested and charged with assault. No matter how much you hate clowns1,  you just aren’t allowed to assault another person because this is something we agree upon, as a society, in our common criminal and civil law.

Here’s the thing: men and boys haven’t been asked to learn any skills to focus their attention away from objectifying women (this is a topic for another day) toward whatever they are supposed to be doing, first and foremost on that list: not harassing women based on the clothing we choose to wear. Because historically you haven’t been asked to take responsibility for your own actions in relationship to how women choose to present themselves physically, there is an assumption that you can’t or that it’s too hard. This means that we start making excuses for your inexcusable behavior; we mistakenly assume that because you haven’t learned how, or haven’t been required that it’s reasonable to expect you to behave unreasonably. Doesn’t this sound like nonsense? That’s because it is.

So there it is. Challenge the legitimacy of dress codes, rules around how women “should” look and any dismissal of violent behavior based on the victim’s appearance. When you hear (or see) someone say, “well so-and-so did X because SHE was wearing Y,” SAY SOMETHING. Remind people that we are each responsible and accountable for our own choices and behavior. Call it out in conversation. Write letters to the editor. And here’s the real feminist kick in the sensible trouser pants: your calling it out will have more legitimacy because you are a man. I know! It’s so messed up!

You need to stop with ANY AND ALL language around what women should/should’t wear. Examples include: “she’s too old/fat/tall/thin/etc. to be wearing THAT” or “no wonder X happened, look how she dresses” or “isn’t that outfit a bit much for work?” If you have kids in your life, remind them that they are allowed to dress however they want and they should always expect fair, equal and respectful treatment; explicitly educate them that what another person is wearing is never a good reason to harm that person (physically, emotionally or verbally).

dress code poster

Extra Credit: If you are a parent, go to your local school board or principal and petition for the elimination of all dress code rules except any that have to do with safety (i.e. vocational schools that require hard hats and work boots). In your petition make sure to articulate why the dress code is sexist and why/how it is wrong. Now, if you really want to be a rabble-rouser, ask your school if you can come in to observe for the day; be vague about your intentions. Familiarize yourself with the dress code and note ALL violations. Pay close attention to who gets chastised and who doesn’t. Alternatively, call the school and ask them for stats on how many kids were sent out of class, given detention or sent home for dress code violations; ask them to break it down by gender for you.

Further Reading:






1Clowns get a bad rap. I have many friends who are wonderful clowns and put great joy and love out into the world. I mean no disrespect toward clowns in the writing of this post. :::seltzer spray:::


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