How do I talk to my daughter about how she dresses? How do we manage dress code questions at our school? How do I prevent a situation where a male teacher has to call a female student out for a skirt that is too short?
The list goes on. A new school year is beginning, and again we must navigate the question of what students – and particularly girls – are wearing to school. In nearly every workshop I did last year at schools that did not have uniforms, the subject of dress codes was raised – both by teachers and by students. Because, in effect, most dress codes say (in words other than these) – girls can't wear skirts that are too short, tops that are too revealing or pants that are too tight. Both the faculty and the students recognize that this is the case, and are troubled by it. Above all, girls want to have the freedom to wear what they want, and are angered by the idea that they need to change their style because they might be a 'distraction' for other students.
But what does that freedom really mean? As I see it, the real issue is about talking to girls – openly and honestly – about how we represent ourselves with what we wear. I think we can all agree that the media sexualizes women – young women in particular – and this has a significant impact on how girls think they need to dress/act/look/speak in order to be accepted by their peers, and by society in general. (Note the photo - an ad for back to school supplies!)
A few years ago, the American Psychological Association published a study on the Sexualization of Girls. Compelling:
“If girls purchase (or ask their parents to purchase) products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves. Girls also sexualize themselves when they think of themselves in objectified terms. Psychological researchers have identified self-objectification as a key process whereby girls learn to think of and treat their own bodies as objects of others’ desires... [in which] girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.”
The study goes on to cite the impacts of sexualization and self-objectification on girls:
“Cognitively, self-objectification has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention.” Note the following example:
Girls were asked to try on either a swimsuit or a sweater, and then complete a math test. “The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men. In other words, thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity.”
Emotionally, “sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”
Sexually, girls tend to be less healthy when they objectify themselves, "as measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness.”
Not to mention that boys are deeply impacted by sexualization and self-objectification of girls. Consider: what are boys taught to expect from girls, both as friends and as romantic partners?
So when our girls – be they our daughters or our students – dress provocatively for school, the worst thing we can do is scold them. Very likely, they think that they are empowered by revealing their bodies and acting sexually – after all, those are the messages they get from popular culture – but, they are also probably quite uncomfortable doing so.
Ask them why they want to dress the way they do, share the APA study with them, and ask them honestly if they feel that their choices about their clothing really are theirs. Help them understand the influence of media archetypes, and find their own voices in the journey to express ourselves with what we wear.
Check out this excerpt from Beautiful for a bit more on this issue...
NOTICE THE WAY YOU REPRESENT YOURSELF. The way the
media represents women has a huge impact on the way we see ourselves.
No doubt. Pay attention to the language you use to talk about yourself
and other women and girls around you. Use words that strengthen and
encourage. It can be empowering to notice and point out someone who
is beautiful, but it might feel a bit degrading to use words like “hot” or
“sexy” even if they seem like compliments. I think you can feel the
difference. Pay attention to how you dress and act—are you comfortable
in the clothes you are wearing? Do you feel like yourself behaving as
you are? It can be really tempting to objectify ourselves when we see
images of women being objectified all around us. Try to carry yourself
in a way that represents who you really are.