I went to an all-girls high school with a dress code: verboten were thin-strapped tank tops, shorts or skirts higher than the length of down-stretched fingertips, and leggings/p.j. pants (because ‘you can see everything’). My colleague speculates this dress code is intended to encourage “professionalism” in high school women… and also that students’ revealing clothes can make teachers uncomfortable.*
My problem with “professionalism”: it’s grounded in how our culture calculates women’s worthiness by what they wear (or don’t wear). “Conservative” (covered/less tight) clothing is more “professional.” For women. Because men’s clothing isn’t typically short or low cut or clingy. Men are professional when they wear a tie. Women are professional when they avoid showing off cleavage or leggings that “show everything.”
Why is this? First we have to understand that women’s shoulders, legs, cleavage, and butts are culturally identified as “sexy parts,” so when they are made available to be looked at, they become sexual. “Sexual display” makes a woman less worthy of respectful engagement because she is instead available for sexual consumption/desire. Standards of “professional” dress feed into a culture that says, “hey ladies, if you wear something you feel good in, you may lose respect and advancement points because, doggonnit, people can’t help fantasizing about your bodies in ways that rob you of agency and respect!”
I’ve noticed that academic blogs aimed at the higher ed crowd also like to give wardrobe advice. As evidenced here, here, and here, even feminist blogs inevitably “help” female grads, job seekers, and young faculty by telling them how to present their bodies. Wear makeup and high heels to look authoritative (but not too much or too high)! Don’t wear jeans and sneakers because when women dress down, it downgrades their power!
This advice is like telling women to prevent rape by avoiding frat parties. Rather than addressing how our culture objectifies and controls women through sexual violence, this type of advice tells women to constantly monitor how their self-presentation and behavior might trigger others’ “uncontrollable” reactions.
I get that a female grad/job seekers/young faculty member might have to play the game. But also, I’m really fucking tired of being told what to wear so students will pay attention to my lesson rather than my body or my age; that older colleagues may think less of me if I wear tight pants; that I won’t get promoted because I’m not professional in tank tops. And I’m frustrated that the advice is always to change my manner of dress. Where is the blog that discusses the culture of rating female academics on their clothing/body/face??? (actually, here’s one)
I’ve heard that some students at my old high school are trying to get the dress code rescinded on the grounds that it perpetuates the belief that women’s uncovered bodies are “sexy” and thus “inappropriate” in the academic context. GET IT DONE, LADIES. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m offering a few other basic actions:
1. Lets change the discourse (starting with academic blogs). Rather than listing the things I need to wear/not wear to look like a professional academic, let’s talk about the sexualization and infantilization of female academics based on dress codes. Then lets bring this shit up in faculty meetings! Because judging or sexualizing people based on their dress is both gender and class discrimination (dress clothes are expensive!).
2. Tell students its inappropriate to make comments about their instructor’s appearance. And discuss with students how statements like “you don’t look like a professor” are code for “your perceived age/dress/gender/race/ethnicity seems to preclude you from having achieved a PhD or a professor position.”
3. * In response to the argument that students’ dress makes teachers uncomfortable: rather than imposing a dress code on however many hundreds of students to make a handful of teachers more comfortable, perhaps lets focus on teaching instructors not to gaze at or sexualize students’ bodies ? In my last academic position, students would literally wear bikini tops and wet suits to class. I worked hard at looking my students in the face rather than at their bodies, and made efforts to judge them based on their contributions to class rather than their self-presentations. This is a very important exercise I—and all teachers and supervisors—should engage every day.