In high school (long, long, long ago) I was in the library. The school library rules allowed us to lounge as long as we were quiet and didn’t cause problems. One day I sat on the floor in the corner of the library reading a book. I was wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt (my uniform circa the early 90s) and I leaned forward toward my feet with the book in view so I could read it.
I was really into the book apparently because I didn’t notice the librarian coming quickly toward me, his face red and enraged. He growled that I was inappropriate and that what I was doing was disgusting, and to put my legs together instantly. I did, but what was an innocent moment of reading became something else. The librarian was letting me know that I was provocative, and he sexualized my behavior when all I was actually doing was my homework.
Luckily, I had an understanding that it was perhaps the librarian’s mind that was inappropriate, but from that point forward I was cognizant (whether I acted on it or not) that girls are often deemed to be in control of other people’s behavior toward them.
The policing of girls often starts in grade school when puberty begins and so too does sexualization. Dress policies and enforcement of those policies are often a decent mirror to let us know what is happening in society.
Though school dress code language does not always specify girl students, it often focuses on clothing worn by girls, like leggings, skirts and tank tops. One school under fire for gender bias in its dress code and unfair enforcement is a nearby charter school. One complaint is that only girls are collectively pulled aside at the beginning of the school year to discuss what clothes are distracting, while the boys are sent to play outside. According to parents and students that have spoken out on the issue, the dress code is often only enforced with girls. This sends a clear message to both genders: Girls are in control of behavior toward them and boys are not responsible for their actions toward girls.
I have both a son and daughter and the last thing I want is either to believe this message.
Unfortunately, policing of females doesn’t diminish as we get older and it trickles into our social lives, our interactions with the general public and at work. Dress codes — on paper or through verbal expectations — are an easy way to determine if there is disparate treatment of the genders. When my friends and family learned I was writing this story many reached out with tales of pressure to uncover more or cover up that solely impacted female employees. Meaning, there was consistent focus on policing what women wear and sexualizing women.
My friend Maddie told me that her former employer at a dripless candle company demanded his female employees wear skirts and makeup so that he and male colleagues would have “nice things to look at.”
My cousin Jane, who works at an international retail store, says she and her female colleagues are expected to wear revealing clothing when they get a visit from the chairman of the shop. In anticipation of the chairman’s arrival, managers pressure female coworkers to purchase revealing clothing — items picked out by the managers in the store where they work — regardless of their physical or financial comfort level. “The men working at my store, however, are unaffected,” says Jane.
In one case, says Jane, a female colleague was taken aside by the managers and told that they were disappointed by how she was dressed. While fashionable, says Jane, the colleague was wearing a turtleneck instead of a revealing top. “The managers told her they expected more from her on such an important day, and then one of the managers told her to go shopping on our store floor to pick out something ‘appropriate’.” The manager vetoed items until the employee came back with something revealing. “It’s an unwritten rule that when they tell us that we need to look ‘good’ for the chairman, it means that we need to look sexy.”
While these employers emphasized women uncovering, other employers demand the exact opposite. Molly works for a non-profit and on casual Friday many of her female colleagues wear leggings with boots and long t-shirts. She decided to follow suit and was written up by human resources for inappropriate attire. Molly’s manager and the human resources agent told her that it was not appropriate for her to wear leggings because she “is curvy and should not wear clothing that exposes the bottom portion” of her body.
“As they were writing me up, my manager told me that I should wear clothes that aren’t fitting because ‘thick women can’t pull off what thinner women can’.”
I was too scared to ask why my colleagues are allowed to wear leggings and I’m not, so I ended up signing the write up and just leaving it alone.”
My friend Sarah’s dress code similarly focuses on policing female employees. What’s more shocking than the previously listed informal dress codes is that this policy is in writing and the employer is a government agency. When we met up the other day Sarah sighed with exasperation and handed me a three-page document that contained six bullet points for men. The remainder of the document addressed female employees and focused on underwear fit, breasts, shaving, mandatory heels, cellulite and back fat. Contrarily, the men in the office were told to follow basic rules of hygiene and grooming. In summary, you’re an adult and we trust your judgment.
So, what’s this about? Why would employers think women employees need to be guided in underwear choice and shaving, while believe male employees capable of determining what’s appropriate? In order to answer this we have to rewind to an earlier time in development. If girls are policed and sexualized in grade school, that impacts how both girls and boys perceive girls (who become women) and boys (who become men).
Policing of girls and women isn’t just of how girls and women dress, but also how they act and what they say. In grade school I recall that my male peers would interrupt with their answers without consequence and receive positive attention from the teachers, yet if my female peers or I did the same we were disciplined and told to first raise our hands. According to the Sadkers’ Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, my experience was not an anomaly. Girls are now dominating academics, so clearly something has changed, but the policing of girls and women has not, and now my generation — once children taught that girls must be policed — are now mothers, fathers, teachers, employers and employees.
So, what does that mean? What I find is that even women police women, meaning it seems that culturally that’s what we do, whether it’s slut-shaming how a celebrity is dressed, not taking a woman’s point seriously or vehemently calling out a woman for interrupting (interrupting is a behavior commonly accepted from men). In fact, the person who wrote the dress policy for the government agency is a woman (the employer is a man), the manager demanding more revealing attire is also a woman and so to is the manager who said what female body type shouldn’t wear leggings (and policing and penalizing female employees based on it).
My opinion is that, subconsciously, this bias and policing of girls and women has seeped into what we deem appropriate and how we think we need to respond.
The first step to stop policing girls and women is to apply extra scrutiny to dress codes, both of children and adults to ensure that girls and boys, and women and men, are treated equally. The second is to make sure that we are aware of our potential bias and that growing up in a culture that reinforces disparate treatment of the genders may have subconsciously affected how we treat our children, our friends and our colleagues. This will allow us to examine our motives and perhaps proceed with caution when we have an urge to police girls and women.
Photo credit: Jaap Joris
This post is also on Huffington Post.