Sunday, May 27, 2012

Watch Dogs

Will Smith is raising his daughter to take ownership of her body. Stuyvesant High School is teaching its female charges that powerful men are always watching and leering at teenage women who should be ashamed of their dirty, slutty bodies. I have little else to say except the women they talk to are very impressive in articulating the problems with the high school's enforcement of its dress code, and Phoebe -- as an alum of the school -- has an excellent perspective of her own.

In marginally related news, I was all set to archly ask: if participants in the sport of pole dancing are so concerned about shedding their activity's racy reputation, why are they all in bikinis? But to my impressed surprise, one of the women had an answer, and it wasn't "so people pay attention to us" (it was that they need exposed skin to stick to the poles for some of their tricks).

11 comments:

PG said...

I suppose this is a fresh oppression to Stuyvesant kids, but it's very similar to what my decidedly less elite public high school enforced. To the extent that the Stuy policy really is enforced just against women (something that seems contrary to the NYT article's assertion that both sexes are complaining), it is different de facto from my HS's, which seemed to be explicitly enforced most often against guys wearing super droopy pants.

The administration literally kept lengths of rope in their offices (possibly in the same drawer as the paddle for corporal punishment) that they would run through the guys' belt loops and tie up around the waists. The rule against exposed underwear and backsides arguably was at first racially-biased, but I think I remember a white boy getting in trouble once the fashion had crossed the color line.

The biggest oppression I saw girls face from the rules was from my senior English teacher (a family friend), who would make fun of the cheerleaders' uniforms for being exempt from the general rule about skirt length. I once wore a slightly too short pair of shorts (this was at a particularly awkward stage of my growth spurt when my thighs were bizarrely outpacing the rest of my bones), was quietly reminded of the fingertip rule, and that was it.

The girl who talked about sexist treatment by one of the female school employees, and particularly about getting called out even when she was following the letter of the law, has a legitimate gripe, but it's against empowering school employees to go beyond the rules, not against the rules themselves.

Phoebe said...

PG,

This is David's Stuyvesant-dress-code thread and not mine, but if you don't mind my intrusion...

School dress codes are indeed common all over the place, even if they're new at this particular high school. This is even mentioned in one of the stories about it - the Stuyvesant code is based on that of specific other schools. And depending the anxieties prevalent in a particular community, or among administrators at a particular school, a dress code might be a proxy for racism, sexism, classism, egalitarianism, any number of motivations, some classifiable, some not, some bigoted, some quite the opposite.

But in this case in particular, the problem is sexism. I see nothing in the NYT story that challenges this. The student journalist mentions that male and female students have both complained - not that they did so in equal numbers, and it could well be that the male students were protesting in solidarity with their female classmates. And one of the student contributors writes, "of course boys barely have to acknowledge the existence of a dress code at all," which is very much "of course" when you consider what the dress code consists of. It's a bit like with the headscarf ban in France, which was written as a ban on "ostentatious" religious symbols. So you couldn't come to class wearing a large crucifix necklace, either, but it was abundantly clear that this was about Muslims, not Christians.

Re: "elite", yes, one of life's unfairnesses is that well-known schools in NY get in the news more easily. But to understand why this is story beyond those immediately impacted, it's helpful to know what kind of "elite" Stuyvesant is. It's not (as a rule) rich kids, preppy kids, children of celebrities and politicians, virtually all of whom, in NY, would go to a private school, not a public one, however elite. It's incredibly nerdy kids. Note the story from the girl who only just wanted to get to an early-morning physics class in time for a possible pop quiz, only to learn that she was inadvertently scandalously dressed, and now she's a nervous wreck about the quizzes and the possibility that she's breaking rules without even trying to rebel. While the rules (and certainly their implementation!) would be problematic at any high school, the idea that girls are showing up dressed like Paris Hilton is especially absurd in this case, making it all the more salient that lascivious teachers and administrators are the root of this.

PG said...

And one of the student contributors writes, "of course boys barely have to acknowledge the existence of a dress code at all," which is very much "of course" when you consider what the dress code consists of.

But that sort of assertion is why I compared it to my school's dress code. Even assuming strong gender norms of clothing (which norms of course most heavily police men's attire), so that no guy would ever wear a skirt or dress or even a pre-Fab Five length of basketball shorts, the code at least facially affects boys as well as girls.

A ban on exposed lower backs and undergarments, for example, is exactly what was being enforced by those rope belts used to hike up "sagging" pants and shorts. Guys who can't expose their shoulders can't wear wife beaters or muscle Ts. (Yes, my schoolmates were a classy bunch.) My husband's high school, which was also in the South but otherwise more like Stuyvesant in its academic elitism, went after him and his guy friends for wearing T-shirts deemed subversive or even Satanic.

If you're saying that no guy at Stuyvesant ever wore sagging pants/shorts or inappropriate shirts before this code, or that any who have done so since haven't been called out for it, so that the dress code's surface gender-neutrality is a sham, then I agree the code itself is problematic. But otherwise, it just seems like the school's employees need to be properly trained in enforcement. (The rule that textually contains the most discretion, "Sayings and illustrations on clothing should be in good taste," seems to be the only one that the girls quoted in the article hadn't breached.)

I never dressed like Paris Hilton either, but since the letter of the law was that shorts have to be at least fingertip length, that was getting enforced on my nerdy ass too.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Let me reiterate the headscarf-law example. If a rule is, on paper, universally applicable, but in reality, is about policing just one group, and for obvious-to-anyone-living-it reasons, then indeed the rule, and not just the enforcement, is the problem. The 'offensive slogan' rule is like the 'massive crucifix' one - a beside-the-point add-on so to obscure the discrimination. Rules written in this way tend to lend themselves to enforcement along these lines. The implementation sucks, but is hardly surprising, given the rules and realities of how these students dress.

As for this school in particular, I can think of exactly one guy at my high school who wore tank tops (to show off that he was the one guy a the high school who actually worked out?), and low-slung pants... I can think of exactly one person a goth-ish girl who I don't think did this intentionally. (Different builds do different things to pants, and all that.) And I'm not sure why you're set on the "classy" angle - these kids weren't dressed this way, not because they were in made-to-order Lacoste, or because they were white and middle-class and trying to reject "hood" culture, but because of the school's demographics. Kids who just arrived from China, or whose culture is otherwise something other than American-high-school-of-teen-movies (from that same article: "About three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are immigrants or children of immigrants") are more likely to be wearing a generic t-shirt and jeans than to have embraced any particular American subculture, high-end or low. (Like how no one wore Abercrombie, during the years when kids across the country were begging their parents for that pricey logo.)

Meanwhile, clothing for teen girls, whether cheap or expensive, is stuff like tank tops, miniskirts, shortish shorts. Factor in that teens are often still growing, and simply wearing a long-forgotten skirt from the back of the closet to school could mean problems. Clothing made for girls or women is, these days, cut in such a way that any increase in size in any direction means you're showing more skin or in something inadvertently bodycon, so unless you wear a tent, or menswear, or clothing meant for those in religious groups with their own strict dress codes, you risk violating these rules. At this school, for a variety of reasons I think I've somewhat exhaustively explained, that dress code is a dress code for girls, dressed up in gender-neutral language.

PG said...

but in reality, is about policing just one group, and for obvious-to-anyone-living-it reasons, then indeed the rule, and not just the enforcement, is the problem.

Yes, that's why I said, "If you're saying that no guy at Stuyvesant ever wore sagging pants/shorts or inappropriate shirts before this code, or that any who have done so since haven't been called out for it, so that the dress code's surface gender-neutrality is a sham, then I agree the code itself is problematic."

I just want to clarify if this is your factual assertion -- that while perhaps male students are complaining about the dress code in solidarity with their female classmates, none of the male students have actually been deemed to be in breach of the code and enforcement has been wholly against girls.

I don't think sagging is really subcultural at this point; it's a pretty common aspect of casual male youth attire that particularly infuriates authority figures. Obama was calling it out on MTV; a member of Green Day (white) was ejected from a plane for sagging pants; with regard to Asians, a Japanese snowboarder was barred from the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics because his sagging pants were inappropriate.

Meanwhile, clothing for teen girls, whether cheap or expensive, is stuff like tank tops, miniskirts, shortish shorts.

Then how did any girl at my high school (myself included) ever get through the school day? I agree that clothing specifically marketed only to teen girls, i.e. not considered tasteful for their moms, runs toward attire that exposes more skin. But that is not literally the only clothing one can find in the juniors section. As you note, there's always the generic t-shirt and jeans. To say that one can't expect girls to abide by the dress code because the code doesn't accord with what's most readily available this season for teens, would be like my insisting to a judge a few years ago, when women's business attire was weirdly overrun by 3/4 length sleeves, that therefore a suit of that type must be acceptable to wear to court.

Outside school, e.g. in paying jobs in offices, dress code expectations are not that different from what Stuyvesant has proposed. Tank tops and miniskirts are often frowned upon. Despite the false impression Ally McBeal may have given of acceptable dress for court, in real life judges will criticize lawyers who dress in ways that the judge finds inappropriate (even regarding the color of a suit).

People don't seem to figure these things out just by osmosis, plus this is especially treacherous territory for women who have options beyond the black suit, white shirt, non-ridiculous tie, black loafers uniform for men. So I don't think it's intrinsically inappropriate for schools to provide early guidance, which might help our society avoid events like this. Maybe everyone who attends Stuyvesant already knows just how to dress as a professional and their difficulties in dressing to code are entirely based on what's available in casual wear, but I doubt it.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Re: what you put in bold, point taken.

Re: my "factual assertion" that this has not impacted one boy personally. How should I know? Maybe it has impacted a handful. Stuy kids might well wear shirts with offensive slogans. But I don't think Japanese snowboarders have terribly much in common with Stuyvesant's Asian and Asian-American population.

"As you note, there's always the generic t-shirt and jeans."

Yes, and as cut for women or teen girls, jeans are almost invariably low-slung, t-shirts almost invariably on the cusp of midriff-bearing. Especially t-shirts a girl who's not shopping all the time might have bought at 14 - at 17 they may well fit quite differently.

"Outside school, e.g. in paying jobs in offices, dress code expectations are not that different from what Stuyvesant has proposed."

Not everyone with "paying jobs in offices" is a lawyer, and law is notoriously strict in this regard. (I'd put the line at, any job where classic-looking ballet flats wouldn't be formal enough.) But more to the point, high school students dress far more casually than lawyers or even other office workers, and casual clothes are not designed to meet office dress codes. If you buy whatever's being sold as business attire at Ann Taylor or Brooks Brothers or how should I know where people buy this stuff, and you buy stuff in your correct size, you're unlikely to go wrong. If, however, you buy a shirt and jeans/shorts/skirt at the Gap, however well-fitting, you perfectly well might violate a dress code that doesn't line up with how casual clothing for girls or women these days is even made.

Given that college students also dress quite casually, it seems odd that high schools would teach this life lesson. As for how it's eventually learned, what happens is, people desperately want jobs, and thus go about learning what's worn in the field they wish to enter. They have internships, summer jobs, etc. and observe. It's not that kids at this high school magically know or think about what's worn in offices (although some, in debate, Model UN, things like that probably already own this stuff). It's that the ones motivated to go into fields where this matters seem to do just fine.

Phoebe said...

Also - I thought about this a bit more, and another question I'd have for you would be why you think high schools should adhere to the same dress codes as any particular workplace. To stick with this one high school, not everyone was headed to the same kind of environment. Law firms, sure, but also academia, also Silicon Valley, the military, jewelry design... There are basic standards of decency that transcend specific professions, but they're a whole lot less stringent than the Stuyvesant dress code. There are tasteful shirts appropriate for many offices (esp. ones without a/c) that are also sleeveless. What would virtually never be OK? Shorts where you can see the bottom outline of the butt, for example, example taken from a hot and humid day in NY. Poor girl was obviously not revealing that much intentionally, and tried, in vain, to adjust an otherwise chic pair of shorts.

If you're a corporate lawyer in a corporate uniform, you chose that profession, and are being well-compensated. If you're a high school student, at a public school at that, you're just doing what the law or (depending your age) basic societal requirements demand.

And that Do's and Don'ts website is horrifying. Less because of the specific dress requirements, which are what they are, and at any rate only impact those who chose to enter a particular profession, but because of how they're explained and how enthusiastically they're embraced, how much delight people seem to take in enforcing the rules.

PG said...

I don't think any particular high school need adhere to the dress code of any particular workplace. What I'm noticing is the reaction of outrage toward the Stuy dress code, as thought it is self-evidently a violation of human rights or at least plainly unreasonable to expect people to dress as those rules require. My point is that the rules as written are entirely reasonable and within the norms of our society and what will be expected of these students as adults. What would not be acceptable is a gender-biased enforcement of those rules, which is why I'm trying to figure out if your premises include "Only girls are being affected by this dress code."

That any given student may end up in a Silicon Valley company that expects workers to show up in tank tops and short-shorts (although based on my experience with tech companies, they're really more prone to the T shirt and jeans, and the under-representation of women actually causes many to dress more conservatively) is not a good basis for having the school set no more restrictive a dress code than that. A tech company might also expect workers to immediately state whatever idea comes to mind, even if it interrupts someone else who is making a presentation, because it fosters that particular company's focus on creativity -- but that doesn't mean a high school should abstain from the "raise your hand and wait to be called upon to speak, and don't raise your hand until the speaker has come to a pausing point" norm.

As mentioned somewhere in what David linked, maybe in comments to the NYT article, this whole fuss over rules and their allegedly gendered enforcement would cease if the school went to uniforms instead. These would ideally be gender neutral uniforms that have everyone in the same walking shorts, pants, shirts, etc. rather than putting girls the Catholic schoolgirl miniskirt of pervert fantasy. But according to the comments, the students would hate that even more.

If you're not familiar with AboveTheLaw, it's pretty much horrifying all the time. I linked it only to indicate that some people who are motivated enough about the profession to take out hundreds of thousands in non-dischargeable loans, and spend at least three years of their youth reading about railcar couplers, aren't necessarily doing just fine.

Colleges used to have very strict dress codes. My alma mater required a coat and tie for all students until around the time they started admitting women (1970), and Oxford still requires students to wear a suit to take exams. In the 1960s, even secretarial schools would require women to wear gloves to class. I don't know what specifically precipitated the relaxation of standards other than the usual scapegoat, Kids These Days.

PG said...

Also, if the idea is that these rules are gender-biased in their effect because of the combination of women's bodies and women's fashion, I'm not really sympathetic to that claim. I have a fairly hourglassy figure and extra weight on top of that, and there are lots of annoyances in my fashion world, like that gap between buttons over the bust on a button-down shirt. Our bodies are what they are and we can buy clothing that covers them up, or try the procrustean route of having less body to cover. But if the objection is "I can't wear this season's low-slung jeans and midriff baring shirts," I can't sympathize. Really, there are clothes even at the Gap that cover the entire body.

It all reminds me of a lengthy online argument I had with people who claimed that a proposed airline rule requiring passengers to buy an additional seat, if they couldn't fit into one seat with the armrests down, was biased against women. Rationale: women are biologically more prone than men to gaining weight on their thighs, which thus makes them more likely not to be able to get the armrests down than an equivalently obese man who is carrying weight forward on his belly.

Phoebe said...

PG,

In no particular order...

-No law will hit every group in society exactly the same. The airplane-seat rule would only be a valid complaint if there was some reason to believe it was there as a pretext for discriminating against women. Unlike the French ostentatious-religions-symbols ban, which there's good reason to think was about Muslims and about girls/women.

-Re: uniforms, any pleated, obviously-a-uniform skirt has this impact on men, unfortunately. Shorter more than longer, but long ones as well, and most definitely not just the skirts that might be sold as a schoolgirl-fantasy outfit at those shops that display those on 6th avenue. But a uniform of pants for both sexes... might be better than an ambiguous dress code? It takes the students' theoretical sexual appeal to lurking creeps out of the equation entirely. But I'm not sure why a high school needs to have a uniform, and having one wouldn't teach any larger point about how to dress as an adult.

-My point wasn't that Stuy kids should instead dress as if for a tech company. It's that if you're going to ban tank tops and not even all that short shorts/skirts, there should be a reason. And given that kids might end up in any career later on, gearing a high school dress code to the likelihood that a decade later, some of these kids will work in conservative office environments doesn't seem like much of one. I can, on the other hand, understand a dress code with that aim at a law or business school, and in my limited experience of such matters, students in such programs do dress more 'corporate.' At a high school, 'basic decency' might be a good reason, but it's odd to set that at a level above and beyond that of many not-at-all-racy workplaces, and - to reiterate - to design the code with the obvious purpose of obscuring the fact that 16-year-old-girls have 16-year-old-girl bodies.

And in terms of how clothing fits, I haven't found it all that simple to get casual clothing that isn't revealing in unintended ways, but more to the point, high school girls, esp. not all that wealthy/shopping-oriented ones, are still wearing clothes from when their bodies weren't what they've recently become. You're wearing at 17 what you wore at 14, at 14 what you wore at 12. A great deal of the revealing clothing worn by high school girls, esp. nerdy ones, is inadvertent. A dress code like this, and all the more so its enforcement, sexualizes that which isn't intended as a sexual message, and thus creeps the girls out.

PG said...

Unlike the French ostentatious-religions-symbols ban, which there's good reason to think was about Muslims and about girls/women.

Sure, you could look at who was most promoting it, and it wasn't feminists making the Katha Pollitt argument; it was conservatives demanding that Muslims assimilate. If that's also what was happening at Stuyvesant -- the dress code was promoted by people specifically hostile to girls' freedom of dress, and not hostility toward young people's freedoms generally (the Principal Rooney from "Ferris Bueller" type) -- then I'd agree there's reason to believe that the seemingly neutral rules are a pretext for discrimination only against girls. The comparison to the airline rule was because I thought you were also arguing that even if the rules were being enforced against boys as well, the rules would affect girls more because of qualities peculiar to girls' bodies/fashion.

But I'm not sure why a high school needs to have a uniform, and having one wouldn't teach any larger point about how to dress as an adult.

Again, I'm not discussing this as a matter of need or how I'd run a high school. I'm addressing the reactions of outrage toward the Stuyvesant dress code as something blatantly unreasonable and discriminatory. If there were a gender-neutral uniform, this presumably would eliminate the claim that it discriminated against one gender.

My references to how adults dress at work are about reasonableness. If there is something that's expected in large swathes of adult life in which these students are likely to participate (in contrast to something like the military, which is why I'd consider requiring everyone at Stuy to have a half-inch of hair unreasonable), then that seems like a reasonable expectation to put on high schoolers as well.

to design the code with the obvious purpose of obscuring the fact that 16-year-old-girls have 16-year-old-girl bodies.

Oh, I could do much better than that code if that were my purpose. Consider that under the current code, wearing a Michelle-Pfeiffer-as-Catwoman bodysuit (it covers from chin to toe and clings to everything along the way) would be wholly compliant with the letter of the law. So would a low-cut long-sleeved top with a sheer ankle-length skirt. There are so many ways to dress provocatively, if you're a 16-year-old girl, and still fit within the dress code.

As a nerdy high schooler I mostly wore clothing that was about two sizes too big for me (though with the happy result that some of it now actually fits, including my favorite plaid shirt from 8th grade); my tennis skirts and gym uniforms were the most revealing clothing I wore. Also I stopped getting taller around 13. So I may not appreciate others' difficulty in buying non-revealing clothing. If this is one of those situations that even What Not to Wear could not fix for people, I'll concede the point.