In 2015, Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey gained media attention for widespread student protests — including a march — of its allegedly-sexist dress code. In 2016, a very similar turn of events unfolded at Princeton High School, albeit with less press coverage and fewer students involved. In both cases, the issue at stake transcended the length of a pair of shorts, or the width of the strap of a tank top. Students were protesting gendered fashion policing.
When I was in seventh grade (not in Princeton), I have a distinct memory of standing up so that my teacher could measure the length of my shorts against my arms. I remember shrugging my shoulders extra high and bending my elbows a microscopic amount just so that the tips of my fingers would not dip below the bottom of my shorts. And I made it! My teacher gave me the “Just this once” look, and I was free to go about my day. For shorter-shortsed students, there would be consequences. An improperly-garbed student was sent to the main office, where they would have to put on a lab coat — the traditional, white, button-down kind — over their scandalous outfit. The goal, I presume, was public humiliation and shame: that a student would never want to be seen in their classes, at lunch, hanging out, in a lab coat.
Somehow, though, the administration’s plan backfired. It became cool to wear a lab coat. You were the risky one. The grown-up. The rebel. The one who wasn’t afraid of showing your body or challenging authority.
Inevitably, the perpetrators were almost all girls. (I once saw a boy in a lab coat, but he’d been sporting his girlfriend’s shorts, having forgotten to bring in his gym clothes.) This is true everywhere I’ve been or heard of: Montclair High School, PHS, John Witherspoon (where my sister’s clothing is policed regularly), and my Argentine middle school. This brings up the question of why, in a world in which boys are more likely than other genders to be disciplined in school, girls get in trouble so often for what they wear.
To some women, fashion is an outlet for expression, a reclaiming of female sexuality. In Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, she describes interactions with members of the cast of Girls Gone Wild, an entertainment franchise with content that revolves around stripping and sexual activity among women. Debbie Cope, a cast member, said to Levy that, “The body is such a beautiful thing. If a woman’s got a pretty body and she likes her body, let her show it off! It exudes confidence when people wear little clothes.”
To my sister, an eighth grader who I would generally label as an intersectional feminist with a more “minimalist” fashion sense, clothing policing is not worth it; it is a misuse of attention and resources. There are bigger fish to fry, more malice among students than the clothing they elect to put, or not put, on their bodies every morning. Once authority addresses the unkindness and prejudice rampant in her school, then she’ll listen to what they have to say about the opacity of her shirt.
According to Levy, just because the feminist movement has progressed, all of our actions are not necessarily feminist. “There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn’t work that way. ‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms.”
In other words, it is difficult, if not impossible, to isolate women’s fashion from the system in which it operates. Women move through the world simultaneously sexualized, and policed for their promiscuity. If less clothing and more make-up makes a woman feel confident and beautiful, to what extent is that her inherent fashion sense and genuine self-esteem? To what extent is it a developed inclination to cater to the system?
Ultimately, policing female fashion is inappropriate — in every sense of the word. Even if Levy is right, even if dressing minimally is not a feminist act, authority disciplining girls is more anti-feminist — or any descriptor you want to use to denote counterproductive and unjust. At this point, the patriarchy is running so full-throttle that policing women’s clothing is, in essence, victim-blaming.