I have two daughters, age thirteen and seventeen. All of their school careers, they have been attending private schools that had strict uniform codes. Lately, my thirteen year old has been having some issues when they are allowed to have out of uniform days in the now warm weather. They are required to have shorts that are no more than two inches above the knees on these days. Now, I understand that the children need to dress in a modest fashion, especially at a religious school. Apparently none of her shorts were appropriate and she was getting in trouble. So I took my daughter shopping to try to find some shorts that would be acceptable. After three different stores, almost all I found that would be ok for her to wear were super long, baggy, athletic type shorts that had no feminine quality to them whatsoever.
So I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. All the shorts that seem to be available for young women are barely long enough to cover their backsides, but when I do find a nice pair of shorts for my very long legged daughter they aren’t acceptable because an extra inch of thigh may be showing. To make matters worse, she has been watching what other kids have been wearing on these days, and the younger girls and pretty much all the boys can wear things that are the same length without getting into trouble. So what the school is telling these very impressionable young women who are trying to sort out their self-image is that they are immodest if they do not dress in a way that boys and younger children can dress with no issue.
As she was complaining about this on the car ride home for the twentieth time this year, I finally said, so that all my children, male and female could hear me, “Girls, there is something you need to understand now that is a sad statement about the world, but it may keep you from being constantly miserable. There is a huge double standard that exists where girls are expected to look a certain way in order to protect the feeble minded boys who can’t seem to concentrate on something for more than five seconds if there is an inch of female skin showing somewhere close to them. I suggest you find the times to pick your battles and understand this is a war that has been waged for years and seems to just be getting worse.”
I hated saying that to them. Yet, every day, I see some story about a school board shaming a girl because her pants were too tight or her skirt was too short or her chest looked a little too big because she didn’t strap her breasts down so boys and men wouldn’t leer at them like they were toys. I see it even extended into business and offices where women are either told they have to dress up to “look pretty”, or they have to dress down so as not to distract their male counterparts. We can’t win! Everyone seems to be dictating what girls and women can look like except for the actual girls and women. All the messages girls see in the media make them believe they have to look “sexy” or “hot” or at the very least be beautiful in order to have any worth. Then we turn around and tell girls that, even though they look perfectly respectable, they somehow look “too sexy” or “too hot”, or they are too pretty and are therefore a distraction.
My older daughter is about to go off to college. In her high school years, her school had a uniform policy that I could get behind. The girls and the boys all wear the exact same thing – a polo shirt, specific uniform pants that have to come from a specific store, and no one has to worry about being distracted by the differences between males and females. As extreme as that may be, at least it is fair and equal. I hope that when she heads to school next year, she is never made to feel ashamed of how she looks based on what a male’s opinion of her is or his ability to not sexualize her just because she has a few curves.
Besides my daughters, I also have four sons. My husband happens to be an OB/GYN and is very attuned to women’s rights and self-images. We both make sure to teach our sons that women are not to be objectified and if they are distracted by a pretty girl, or even a “hot chick” walking down the street, it is not their right to make comments, it is not their right to ever be even slightly physically aggressive, and if they can’t concentrate that is their problem, not the girl’s. I try to teach all my children to dress modestly but I don’t freak out if I can actually see their legs, or their shoulders, or even the tops of their chests.
The fact that my daughters are at the mercy of the rest of society to tell them whether or not they look acceptable or appropriate really ticks me off. Yes, I tell them at school to go with the rules because I don’t think there is a problem learning to follow rules that you don’t like sometimes, but those rules should be applied equally to everyone if that is the case. I choose to send my children to private schools that are a bit stricter, so I can’t really complain (though some of the rules they have I think they put in place just to have a sense of power over the kids, but that’s another post). In the rest of society though, including public schools and institutions, stop making our daughters feel like there is something innately wrong with them for being female. They have breasts to someday feed their children, not to be playthings for men. They have hips to allow for childbirth, not for guys to have something to rest their hands on while coming on to them. Their thighs are not going to reach out and grab a boy’s face and force him to look at them so that his algebra quiz is completely forgotten. Their shoulders do not have a magnetic field that flips a switch in the male brain forcing him to start fantasizing.
So what do I tell my daughters? I tell them to be strong, to be proud, and to pick their battles. And my hope for them is that, one day, they can be who they want to be, and not who they are shamed into being.