The first time I got in trouble for clothing at school, or got “dress-coded,” I was 12. It was around the time that wearing leggings and jean skirts was super “in.” That day I wore a jean skirt, likely an inch shorter than school allowed, black leggings to cover up the rest of my legs so I would not get in trouble, and a scoop-neck T-shirt.
I was in science class working on a group project. I felt a tap on my shoulder from my homeroom teacher, who had seen me earlier that day. She asked if she could speak with me outside and I obliged. She then told me something that has stuck with me: “Pooja, I know you like fashion, but I have heard some boys in your class talking about the way you are dressed. I think it would be best if you go change.” I was ashamed. I felt ashamed that people were talking about my clothing. I felt ashamed of my outfit choice. And most of all, I felt ashamed of my body.
At the time, I felt as if I had done something wrong, but in retrospect I was the one who had been wronged. Fervent dress-coding is not only sexist; it also reinforces an already-prevalent body shaming culture, kick-starting the phenomenon at an early age. I understand that we cannot expect to be able to wear crop tops and ripped jeans in the fourth grade, but school dress codes create an environment where women learn early on to feel ashamed of their bodies.
Women have dress codes enforcing how much of their legs they can show, how much of their chest they can show, how much of their stomachs they can show, and even how much of their shoulders they can show. Telling a young girl that she cannot wear a tank top with 1-inch straps is really telling her that even her shoulders are not acceptable for public display.
Telling a young girl that she cannot wear shorts or skirts that do not reach her knees tells her that she doesn’t dictate what is appropriate about her body—society does. Telling a young girl that she cannot show her chest tells her that if her body distracts men it is her fault, not theirs. Telling any woman anything about their bodies fosters body shaming.
The day I got dress-coded, I felt badly about my body, and I know that I am not the first. I was humiliated just for being myself and celebrating my body. Being told every day that I couldn’t wear certain things framed how I feel about my body.
Although I now have few qualms about wearing lower-cut shirts and tighter skirts, every once in a while I do feel indecent or ashamed about showing my body. This is not fair. Dress code guidelines, as they are now, are unacceptable. We must fight for our right to our own bodies, and stop telling young girls how to feel about theirs.
Pooja Patel studies neuroscience and philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. She does research at a CU neurobiology laboratory, which emphasizes anticipation behaviors, circadian rhythms and biology. She has interned off and on at the National Eating Disorders Association for about two years. Pooja enjoys reading, dancing, watching mindless TV and keeping up with fashion trends.
This content was originally published on Proud2bme.org in 2015.