Last week, I brought a recent news article about the controversy over the Bangor High School dress code to my women’s gender and sexuality 101 class. We talked in particular about the students’ argument that the language of the dress code — that students should not wear clothing that is “provocative” or “immodest” — targets and sexualizes female students.
I asked students to think about this argument in the context of discussions we were having about social norms, with particular attention to gender norms.
Our textbook introduces the idea that gender is something we do rather than something we are. To explain: Very few scholars argue that biology (or biological sex) is meaningless, but almost all now agree that what we think of as “gender” is actually a dynamic interaction between the inner psyche and social norms.
For example, gendered behaviors are modeled for us from our earliest days onwards, sometimes explicitly. For example, here in the U.S., girls often hear that they should sit with their knees together; boys are told that they should not be crybabies. But often the behaviors are modeled implicitly.
For many people, gender comes to feel as obvious and as natural a part of them as their eye color, but no matter how natural gender feels, the meanings we attach to feminine or masculine behaviors reflect our larger society. Traditionally in the U.S., femininity has been associated (when associated with white women) with passivity, receptivity and emotion. Masculinity has been associated (when associated with white men) with assertiveness, strength of mind and reasoning.
It is sometimes argued that feminist goals have been accomplished and that we are now in a “post-feminist” age. A common response by students to issues raised by my course material is, “Gender discrimination might have been true in the past, but things have changed.”
When this remark is made, I ask students to ask themselves two follow-up questions: “for whom?” and “how do I know?”
As one student noted on our online discussion board of a controversy over the dress code at her own high school, a male student who wore a dress to her high school graduation was told that he was breaking the code because the dress was too revealing, though, as this student noted, it was no more revealing than other students’ dresses.
This student went on to comment that, “if a girl at the graduation would have worn a tie and slacks, I am sure that no one would have said anything.”
While beauty norms differ from culture to culture, and (as we observe at a place like UMaine) even state to state, in my women’s gender and sexuality class, many female students share similar stories, such as the effort to fit beauty norms while in adolescence or the feeling that they are in competition with female friends.
As long as girls are taught that their self-worth resides in their appearance, fashion will cater to this value. As another student noted on our discussion board, “girls tend to wear more revealing clothes in the first place which would explain why girls [rather than boys] are subjected to more condemning from schools.”
That means the problem at Bangor High is not the dress code per se. It is the way that the language of the code (“immodest,” “provocative”) perpetuates the association between female bodies and a woman’s value or self worth.
While high schools should promote healthy behaviors, it is just as important to understand that an insistent focus on female bodies and their “distracting” potential is also a kind of unhealthiness.
A dress code that targets female students plays into social norms about masculinity and femininity in part by becoming an inviting target for students, whether they fit or strive to refashion gender norms.
Elizabeth Neiman is an assistant professor of both English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine. Elisa Sanse, who is taking a practicum on teaching and is assisting in Neiman’s women’s gender and sexuality 101 course, is a Ph.D. student in history, also at UMaine.