A recent article by Jenny Kutner on Salon.com expressed, appropriately, outrage that a school in North Dakota has instituted a new element to its dress code, forbidding yoga pants and leggings on the rationale that girls wearing those types of pants are distracting to boys.
This is, as Kutner indicates, a bad thing. But, in our opinion, she doesn’t take the critique deep enough. Turns out, if you pull at the thread of school dress codes hard enough, the entire sweater of society unravels. (1)
We're Allowed to Look Sexy
Kutner focuses on restrictive dress code policies like this being wrong for two reasons. Firstly, dress codes are unjust in that their policies tend to focus on female clothing, punishing girls for expressing themselves and dressing comfortably: “[the girls] are usually wearing clothing that makes them feel like themselves, or that simply makes them feel comfortable.”
This is obviously true, along with all of the background on the stodginess of patriarchy and fear of feminine sexuality and historical oppression of girls. I don't disagree with any of that. But what this critique misses is that there’s more to anyone’s wardrobe choices than expressing themselves or wearing what makes them feel comfortable: we also want to look good. What makes for ‘looking good’? It’s complicated, involving status symbols and current trends, but it’s inescapable that we all also want to look desirable to the people we desire.
Once they hit puberty, (hetero) girls are going to desire boys, and it’s natural for them to want attention from them and to look good for them. Lots of teenage boys (especially once you adjust your expectations of their behavior for their later sexual development) do the same thing, dressing to get attention from girls. In other words, girls want to distract boys, and boys want to distract girls. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Look, teenagers (both boys and girls) are horny, and if you think you can force them to repress their sexual natures because they makes adults uncomfortable, then you’ve got to be willing to pay the bill for their therapists when that repression makes them neurotic. Of course, neuroticism is good for the economy, supporting multiple industries (psychiatry, self-help books, booze) and adding to the insecurity that fuels much of our other spending, but that’s another story.
If you really want to create an academic environment in which boys aren’t distracted by girls, then you need to have sex-segregated schools. Some people thing that’s a great idea. But if you don’t allow kids to interact with the opposite sex at all, they lose out on a lot of important social lessons. It might work if you want to enforce a puritan chivalry in male-female relations, because that model reduces women to pure, precious things that need to be protected and reduces men to stoic, bacon-bringing, self-denying workhorses rather than actual human beings. Not surprisingly, we do not think this is a good thing.
Sex-Shaming through Skirt-Shaming
The second critique of dress codes that Kutner addresses is that dress codes “[send] the wrong message to boys: It tells them that they cannot control themselves or their desires; what’s worse, it also tells them that their inability to respect others is acceptable… These dress codes pose women’s bodies as a threat to the innocent young men who might be tempted to, oh, I don’t know, sexually harass or assault them, because that’s what happens when men see female derrieres enveloped in jersey knit cotton.”
Again, this is true. But I want to add another element to this critique as well: not only do policies like this tell boys that they can’t control themselves, it tells both boys and girls that sexual attraction in itself is bad. For girls, this is obvious: slut-shame girls who dress provocatively, with the backing of the authority of the (state)(school), and you reinforce the puritan ideas that girls who actually want to have sex are bad and need to be protected from themselves. But it does the same thing to boys, reinforcing the puritan ideas that it’s bad, illicit, and against the rules to think of a girl is sexy.
We all need to learn how to interact with people who we’re attracted to. Boys need to learn to see girls, especially girls they’re attracted to, as real human beings with subjective wants and desires, and not as mere objects. What better way for a boy to learn that than to see a female classmate wearing a skirt give a terrifically smart answer in calculus?(2) If the only girls that a boy sees dressed provocatively are porn stars, he might reasonably come to believe that girls who dress attractively have nothing to offer the world other than their sexuality (not that that’s all there is to porn stars, that’s just the only side of them that we usually get to see).
Unraveling the Sweaters
Personally, I’m totally against dress codes, partially because I think girls look awesome in yoga pants. And short skirts. And naked, for that matter. For that matter, I think boys look awesome naked too. I’m against dress codes because they enforce the puritanical notion that human bodies, and human sexuality, are bad things. I say, let teenage girls dress as sexily as they want, and let boys enjoy looking at them. And vice versa.
Would that be distracting in school? You bet. But why is that distraction so problematic? We're social creatures, and it's natural for us to take an interest in our peers. But schools are not interested in letting us express what comes naturally to us: schools are effectively socially-controlled prisons where bureaucrats (often obliviously) indoctrinate the next generation. Educators, like prison guards, need control over their resident populations. Why? Because western schooling is profoundly unnatural - we don’t take well to it naturally, and have to be poked and prodded into its square holes. We segregate kids into one-year age slices that create absurd power vacuums and bullies, surround them with other kids who they don’t know and who aren’t members of their own community, jam them into one-size-fits-all curriculums that they may or may not be ready for or interested in, and insist that they learn things that they’re probably never going to need to use at a pace that obtuse adults dictate. Oh, and we insist that they wake up at the crack of dawn to do so, even though teenagers need plenty of sleep, because it’s more convenient for adults. The Atavistic critique of western education is deep, and this is not the place for it, but the bottom line is that schools are unnatural constructs that are required to try to maintain order by controlling human behavior.
To create order, schools want kids to be robots who are only interested in checking the boxes on a list designed by already-warped adults. And one obstacle to creating little machines, if not the biggest obstacle, is those little machine’s natural interest in sex. Sexual desire is a natural phenomenon that causes chaos in institutions trying to control their subjects because of it's absolute subjectivity and refusal to confine itself to what others think is appropriate, and thus institutions will try to stamp it out.
Sexiness is not a bad thing, and neither is sex, if we create a social structure that makes sex safe.
Our society wants to pretend that teenage sexuality, and especially female teen sexuality, doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. Partially, this is because the people who succeed in our society probably didn’t get much action in high school (it’s true, sex is distracting and if you want a 4.0 to get into Harvard Law, it’s best to confine it to a small room at the base of your skull) and are really really jealous of anyone who does, and partially because sex is so dangerous for teenage girls that we feel the need to protect them from it. In our current society, sex is dangerous for teenagers, because we’ve created a social structure wherein an accidental pregnancy is disastrous, but it doesn't have to be that way. Imagine a world where we didn’t have to be scared of teenagers having sex: where they were taught early about the importance of birth control and safe sex, and in which if an accidental pregnancy occurred a strong community existed that could help teenage parents take care of their children without ruining their lives. Or at least imagine a world where girls can wear whatever they want and not be accused of being a horrible person because of it. Sound nice?
by Douglas Payn
October 6, 2014
Yoga pants: good for yoga, good for the world!
(2) Actually, reading an intelligent article by an attractive woman who admits to often writing intelligent articles in her underwear, as Kutner does, might accomplish this too… so keep at it, Jenny!
(1) Okay, that's a cheesy line. But I just couldn't help myself! To me, cheesy lines are as irresistable as girls in yoga pants!
Although by that logic, I should be able to appreciate cheesy lines respectfully but stay away from them when they don't really want my attention. Which I can't. So, revised analogy: to me, cheesy lines are as irresistable as bacon. How's that?
Teenage boys would find this attractive even if the girls were wearing sweatpants. Though they might be wierded out by burkhas...