Saturday, May 26, 2012

"'We still have to cater to the administration’s personal and exceptionally professional fashionista tastes.'"

The NYT links to a new, and evidently controversialdress code policy at Stuyvesant, which goes as follows:
As we approach warmer weather we would remind students to wear appropriate attire to school.

Guidelines for appropriate dress include the following:
• Sayings and illustrations on clothing should be in good taste.
• Shoulders, undergarments, midriffs and lower backs should
not be exposed.
• The length of shorts, dresses and skirts should extend below
the fingertips with the arms straight at your side.
Let's do a close reading of this dress code. There are several clues that the matter at hand is what girls wear. Inappropriate slogans on t-shirts would have been just as much of an issue before the weather warmed up, given that kids do not wear overcoats to class, and given that (and we all know this to be true) the boys who wear those are not leaving home with a tasteful v-neck merino sweater over them, and at any rate the ACLU can swoop in in their defense. This is, as the girls themselves note, about girls.

My first guess was that this was about the sleazy male teachers-and-administrators, who were certainly sleazy in the 1997-2001 era. Teachers, and rarely male students, did the ogling. (Even though, as one quoted student notes, “'Most students don’t really push the envelope so to speak, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything too provocative at Stuy [.]'" The most ogle-happy teacher would turn his head for a girl who wore jeans, but filled them out to his liking.) This was certainly supported by what the principal (whom I don't remember as particularly sleazy) had to say in the school paper:
“Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s no where else to go,” Teitel said. “If they’re at finger length when they stand, then at least when they sit, the length will be livable.”
Seems like he's really thought this through!

But it also appears that culprits include female school employees who are either sleazy in their own right or, as is statistically more likely, who are being forced to contend with the sad fact of life that we are only 17 once. Or who quite simply have a screw loose. One student writes (and this is worth reading in full):
I have been stopped to justify my clothing many, many times since the beginning of this school year, and nine out of 10 times, I wasn’t breaking the dress code. I’ve been told that even though my skirts were technically acceptable, they were still too short for me to wear, and once it was suggested that I should follow a separate dress code, wherein my skirts should end at least four inches past my fingertips, and preferably at my knees. Even though hearing that I needed an individual dress code was hurtful, it wasn’t even the worst thing that’s happened to me regarding the dress code. That would be the time that I walked in wearing a dress that did in fact follow the rules, only to be stopped by one of the women sitting by the scanners. She told me that my dress was too short, and that I would have plenty of time to “show off my curves” when I wasn’t in school (I found this to be ridiculous because the dress I was wearing was shapeless). She then went on to say that the dress code was only instituted for my protection, because there are a lot of bad men outside school, and if I was raped nobody would be able to take that away from me. Then, she said, “and you want a husband, don’t you?” I called my mom later, in total shock, and told her what had happened. She called the school, and funnily enough, I haven’t been unfairly targeted since then.
Another student notes that different body types mean the same outfit gets a different response depending who's wearing it. Which, of course, continues to be the case into adulthood. Thus the choice of many hourglass women to steer clear of styles that would look conservative on Kate Moss. But the message that there are inappropriate ways to dress is one that these kids are going to learn just fine, and the danger that they will show up for their McKinsey interviews in hot pants and stripper heels is approximately nil. This is, as is abundantly clear, not about Life Lessons, but rather about easily titillated school employees behaving far less appropriately than the students whose clothing might be riding up ever so slightly.

******

Aside from all the general issues this raises, it also bothers me on a personal level. I remember it being great fun to transfer from a school with a uniform (not just a dress code) to one without. One ostensible point of school uniforms - that they make it so kids aren't begging their parents for the "right" jeans - only works insofar as they instead must have the right shoes, backpack, etc. It's never a mystery who has money/whose parents indulge their every whim. And the "appropriateness" one... let's just say what I wore in eighth grade, a navy pleated miniskirt and white polo shirt, was far more appealing to the creepy-man-on-the-street than was my ninth grade "uniform" of unflattering boot-cut jeans and gray v-neck t-shirts. The only possible good reason for a school uniform would be for the parents/caregivers of very young children, who then don't have to worry about what the kid is going to wear to school each morning.

At any rate, once I got to high school, I don't remember any rules whatsoever about what we wore. Most students wore nothing worth remarking on. There were a handful of Russian girls (of all builds) in crop tops, gay boys I inevitably had oblivious crushes on in leather pants, goth kids, thrifted-paisley-skirt-wearing girls, some recent Chinese immigrants who for some reason in 1998 favored Nautica logos, etc. There was even a Muslim girl who regularly paired a conservative headscarf with a skimpy tank top. Every possible high school look, with the exception of the one look otherwise definitively adopted by American high school students in that era - Abercrombie - which for whatever reason all the school's many subcultures decided was unacceptable.

And oh my goodness does this bring me back:
It was 7:55 am when I swiped my I.D. card through the scanner one morning. I was in a hurry to get to physics on the 8th floor (my teacher has a tendency to give pop quizzes at the beginning of the period).
At least I know the setting for my next anxiety dream.

5 comments:

PG said...

The only possible good reason for a school uniform would be for the parents/caregivers of very young children, who then don't have to worry about what the kid is going to wear to school each morning.

It may not be a good reason, but parents of older children often support uniforms because it means they don't have to police what their kids wear to school. (See also parents who want stuff banned from TV so they don't have to check what their kids are watching.) Especially if your work/sleep schedule doesn't allow for a parent to check the kid's attire before leaving the home, this can be really helpful.

Phoebe said...

PG,

It's often not a good reason, for girls, at least, because, as I mention in the post, there's straight-up nothing more scandalous for a girl 12-18 to wear than a schoolgirl outfit. (My school had a much-challenged length requirement, as well as a bunch of not-really-that-innovative students who figured out that skirts could be rolled up at the waist.) Unless the uniform is slacks and only slacks, nine times out of ten, what the girl would have picked for herself would have been less titillating.

Phoebe said...

Oh, forgot to add: but it doesn't matter if the skirt hits the knee. It's still a schoolgirl outfit.

PG said...

It's often not a good reason, for girls, at least, because, as I mention in the post, there's straight-up nothing more scandalous for a girl 12-18 to wear than a schoolgirl outfit.

I suppose it's a cultural difference stemming from the Western eroticization of underage girls because they're forbidden? Schoolgirl uniforms in other parts of the world such as Asia -- admittedly, rarely of miniskirt length in those countries, usually more like mid-calf -- don't seem to attract nearly as much attention.

For example, I got stared at much more in New Delhi as an almost-30 woman in a sleeveless top and above-the-knee skirt -- at one point was actually being followed by a man, who slunk off after I yelled at him in English (I don't know Hindi) -- than any schoolgirls seemed to be noticed in their uniforms. A presumably well-meaning teen boy who attached himself to me as a guide and facilitator advised me to dress in traditional Indian clothing, which doesn't come in an above-the-knee length. I couldn't take his advice precisely because I literally didn't have the space in my suitcase for more clothing, but I did wear only below the knee clothing for the rest of the stay in Delhi.

But in that case (schoolgirl uniform hot because eroticization of underage girls), anything that signifies "jailbait" to perverts will be sexualized.

Phoebe said...

"I suppose it's a cultural difference stemming from the Western eroticization of underage girls because they're forbidden?"

Most likely.

Also - a great deal of public-space attention goes to girls who are young enough to be scandalized/provoked/confused by it, as opposed to, to the girls/women that the average man finds most attractive. A plain-looking 12-15-year-old in a uniform will, I suspect, find herself harassed more often than will an above-average-looking female college student. That this is so often the case leads to the usual evo-psych misinterpretations about how what all men really want are 13-year-old girls.