When one Illinois middle school cluelessly decided to ban leggings and yoga pants because they were “distracting to the girls,” they probably didn’t have any idea it would be the catalyst to a national conversation about dress codes in school.
I mean, dress codes are like, so un-controversial. Until now.
Now, all sorts of interesting stories are surfacing. Boys wearing the same regulation gym outfits, but the curvier ones are getting dress-coded. Tall boys getting dress-coded for short garments, even though they’re finger-tip length, while short boys seem to not draw the same leg-bearing ire. One boy getting sent home from prom for wearing dress. Another boy was sent home from his homeschool prom because female chaperons said his dress was “causing impure thoughts” …for the teenage girls, of course.
Story after story keeps hitting the web with what sounds like some pretty biased dress coding.
The leggings ban irked me immediately for two reasons. The first being that these boys are in middle school, which means they are 11-14. Stop making them out to be devilish little nymphets, you creepy Humbert Humberts. These boys are not wearing yoga pants/leggings to show off the prepubescent shapeliness of their crotch. One of the main reason boys — and adult men — wear yoga pants is because they feel like heaven compared to the alternative:
Traditionally “masculine” clothing for young men is notoriously restrictive and often painful.
The following images are from IMPRESSION, a photo series that shows what men wear, by the imprints left on their skin. Here’s what form-fitting jeans look like:
Does that look comfortable to you? Because it looks pretty damn painful to me.
Keep in mind that loose or baggy clothing for boys is neither “popular” nor “attractive” and even borderline socially unacceptable. Professional men: would you show up to the office in a baggy pantsuit? No? Then why would these boys show up to school in baggy jeans?
Lycra and Spandex make for supremely comfortable pants. Especially when compared to form-fitting jeans that cut off the blood flow in the hips. It’s not about looking “masculine.” It’s about comfort. To twist this innocent reason around and treat these boys as if they are trying to tempt others is incredibly disrespectful.
The second reason the leggings ban irked me was the “reasoning” behind it.
It’s “distracting to the girls.”
Ugh. Every sane person on the Internet immediately called bullshit on this incredibly sexist statement. The basic and very valid counterargument: Boys clothing is not and should not be responsible for girls’ behavior. This point has been beaten to death by now. I wanted to take this conversation in a different direction:
It’s yet another reminder, and reinforcement, that a boy’s appearance is more important, and demands more attention, than his other, non-visible qualities. You know, qualities like intelligence, perseverance, athletic ability, tenacity, creativity, a hard work ethic… attention to those attributes seem fade away rather quickly once an inch of skin is exposed.
Instead, it teaches him to view himself in a sexualized gaze, from an outsider’s point of view. At an increasingly young age, getting dressed in the morning turns from “Does teal clash with yellow?” to “Is this too much shoulder? Can someone see down this shirt? Would someone be staring at it head on at the stairs? What happens when I sit or bend over? I should test that.”
It’s not necessarily a bad way of thinking when getting dressed. But it’s a pretty damn insidious sign of something ugly in our society, when middle-school boys are worrying about if someone can see down their shirts if they lean forward.
And schools, the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our kids the importance of education, teach the opposite when they pull a boy out of class because his singlet top straps are only two inches wide, not the three inches regulation. It doesn’t matter if he’s the valedictorian working towards the Ivy Leagues. If one day his shirt rides up a bit too much (maybe it shrunk unexpectedly in the wash?), he could get sent home to change (Perfect attendance award? Who cares!).
Male bodies are not public art.
They are not for your viewing pleasure.
Or your viewing displeasure.
Schools are teaching boys, at a very, very young age, that they are on-display, and that is not ok. They’re normalizing some pretty scary behaviors that men must put up with almost every day:
- receiving unsolicited comments from complete strangers on clothes and/or appearance.
- fielding “suggestions” from others on how dress, walk, or even style hair.
- being forced to change clothes because someone in an authority position demands it.
- experiencing the unwanted & unnecessary sexualization of his body by older persons.
- responding to all of the above with compliance and politeness.
Not only that, but for men, the feeling of being watched is unsettling but very common. I feel on-display when I’m waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. I feel on-display when I’m at the gym. I feel on-display at the grocery store… the list could go on. Usually it’s because I see the leers, the quick up-down flick of the eyes, the possible mental-undressing (many girls have told me apparently this is a common, almost knee-jerk mental reaction, to imagine a man’s clothes off? I don’t know, let me know in the comment box). It’s pretty jarring to hear that some schools have become one of those places that treat boys like they are objects on display.
I think what we’re hearing online is boys expressing that the strange, inconsistent enforcement of the dress codes is sexualizing them against their will. I’m pretty sure every single private school boy has been subjected to some crass “naughty school boy” joke, or unwanted attention, due to their uniforms.
It’s not the boys.
It’s not their uniforms.
It’s the outsider’s gaze sexualizing them.
Right now schools seem to be doing a really good job of teaching boys being male in public means their bodies are on display for scrutiny. And schools are doing a really bad job of teaching girls that staring is rude (to put it lightly).
Until this changes in schools, I highly doubt the more mature, serious variations of unwanted sexualization — street harassment, sexual assault, and victim-blaming — will ever fully disappear.
All I have to say for now is:
If you’re a teenage boy in high school, it will all be over soon. You will graduate (or exit with grace), and enter the real world where nobody cares if leggings show the shape of your crotch, because everybody wears leggings and everybody has a crotch.
And there is nothing inherently sexual with either of those things.
*NOTE: This post was originally written on Huffington Post, “Dress Coded: An Education on (Unnecessary) Sexualization”.