It’s Not Her Fault You’re Distracted By Her Outfit

dress codes sexism misogyny

Now listen, if I happen to be in a business meeting and there’s a woman with a kick ass pair of shoes, those shoes might very well distract me. But it would be absurd of me to ask her to never wear those again. What we’re doing with our school dress codes is no different. It is up to us as individuals to know how to be respectful and value others and conduct ourselves with some decency.

Early in my professional career I experienced what it was to be sexualized in the workplace. The term “micro transgression” wasn’t in our vernacular then. It was the days of business suits and dress pumps. I dressed pretty conservatively since I worked in the financial sector. I worked in corporate training and without fail, after every class of financial advisors I trained my feedback form would comment on my looks, never my brain. Participants in my classes would say things like “Ilina looked sexy in that skirt.” or “It was great to have an instructor who was nice to look at since I’ve been away from home so long.” Or the best, “It was hard to pay attention with a hot teacher.” My male counterpart’s evaluations on the other hand, were all about how proficient and smart he was. Participants spoke of his wit while they spoke of my charm. They spoke of his good business sense while they spoke of my smile. There was also that time that one of these advisors mailed me a bikini to the office with a note saying he looked forward to seeing me poolside at an upcoming conference in Palm Springs. I cannot make this stuff up. The message he sent was clear. And I wouldn’t stand for it.

Of course I was a grown woman, confident and capable of speaking for myself and standing up for myself. What I’m seeing in schools today is driving misogyny from a young age. The last thing this planet needs is to perpetuate this backwards, harmful philosophy of denigrating and sexualizing women, nay, girls. We are not here for men’s entertainment. It is neither our fault nor our problem if boys and men are distracted by our looks or our outfits. We can manage to hold it together so why do we expect less of men and punish ourselves?  Should our outfits, our hair, our looks become a distraction to you, that’s your problem, not ours. This issue of being distracted by women’s outfits and looks fall squarely on the shoulders of men. It is not the onus of women and girls to prevent men and boys from becoming distracted.

Every dress code I have seen lists about 20 points with items calling out boys. Some dress codes even go so far as to mention dressing so you are not a distraction. Again, this message is pointed to girls, not to boys. I’m standing tall upon my soapbox calling bullshit here. Now listen, if I happen to be in a business meeting and there’s a woman with a kick ass pair of shoes, those shoes might very well distract me. But it would be absurd of me to ask her to never wear those again. What we’re doing with our school dress codes is no different. It is up to us as individuals to know how to be respectful and value others and conduct ourselves with some decency. We must stop objectifying and vilifying women. This mindset feeds the rape culture mentality that says what a woman wears plays into her rape. Nonsense.

And as the mother of boys, I’ll be damned if they learn to objectify girls. My basic goal as the mom of sons is to teach them to grow up not to be a-holes.  I teach them that the way they see others has everything to do with themselves and they are responsible for their actions, regardless the provocation. What a girl wears has no bearing on her intelligence, her aptitude, her grace, her value. Now look, there is a difference between decorum and distraction. Decorum calls for certain attire and certain behavior in certain circumstances. I wouldn’t wear sweatpants to a church wedding, for instance. But what a girl wears to school, short of being something that is dangerous like the Hunger Games outfit that catches on fire, she should be able to wear whatever the hell she wants to wear. These messages are constantly hammered at girls, objectifying them from the perspective of straight boys. The gay kids aren’t feeling distracted by what boys and girls are wearing. Alas, we don’t message to this audience because it’s easier to just ignore them, but that’s a different story. This argument about being a distraction to heterosexual pubescent boys is bogus.

Take for example, a homecoming invitation I saw from a friend. It said to wear something “not formal.” OK, that seems to be directed to both boys and girls. It went on to say “Leave something to the imagination. Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman, and loose enough to show you’re a lady. – Edith Head.” Clearly that’s directed to girls only. There was no comparable quote directed to the boys attending the homecoming dance. This message is rife with body shaming and misogyny. Apparently the principal saw nothing wrong with this quote and refused to act until several parents spoke up. I wonder how such a flyer made its way to print in the first place? You don’t need to be a woman to advocate for girls (see my point above about raising boys to grow up not to be a-holes). I say it’s time we act, people. I urge you all, mothers of sons and mothers of daughters alike to stand up against this double standard that continues to degrade girls. Let’s teach our children to own their actions and respect themselves and others.

Cross-posted with permission from Dirt and Noise.

Ilina Ewen writes at Dirt & Noise and is a seasoned marketer with over 20 years of marketing, brand strategy, communications, and writing experience.  Along with serving Shot@Life, Ilina works with her local food bank, serves on the boards of SAFEchild to help eliminate child abuse and the Cecilia Rawlins Fund, which helps provide meals and support to children and families in crisis at her son’s school. Ilina also advocates for public education and serves on the North Carolina State Superintendent Parent Advisory Council and the Statewide Summative Assessment Task Force. She’s a doting mom to sons Carter and Neal, an Audrey Hepburn fan, devourer of all things food related, and a shoe aficionada. In her free time she indulges in YA novels and Netflix binges.

Image via Jessica Wallin/Wikimedia Commons.

  • Nana Smith

    So let me get this straight, if you decide to send your underage daughter to school half-naked, it’s MY fault I’m distracted by her vagina? It’s my fault I’m distracted by her thong waving around in the teacher’s face?

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