Dress Codes, Breastfeeding, and the Commodification of Female Bodies

When the dark brown, men’s small, community, long-sleeved t-shirt became a policy, I was in the seventh grade. I have a vivid image of my male teacher standing in front of class and holding it up to a roomful of middle school students to explain the shirt was the newest method of enforcing a school dress-code policy. In theory, the rule applied to all students: if any individual wore a shirt or tank-top that showed their bra straps, the student must wear the dark brown, men’s small, community, long-sleeved t-shirt over their regular clothes. The other girls in my class and I were in uproar: this was northern California—no way were we about to allow our bra-straps the label of “distracting.” Despite our best efforts, the shirt went into effect and more than one female member of my class had to wear it, sitting in class humiliated past the point of learning and participation.

The brown shirt made clear that the bra straps slipping out from under tank-tops and t-shirt sleeves as we moved our arms—taking notes in class, playing basketball during recess, excitedly gesturing as we articulated new understandings in reading groups—were sexual. The dress code sexualized a group of 12-year-old girls, all of whom weren’t entirely sure what “sex” exactly was. We were in violation of school policy; the perpetrators of a distracting learning environment in which our male classmates were the assumed victims of our disruptive bodies. Though I do not recall ever being in violation of the rule, I do remember thinking a humiliated, fuming, and tearful female classmate seemed much more distracting than the offensive strap of an undergarment on her shoulder.

In the seven years since my eighth-grade debut, I hoped that the practice of sexualizing our nation’s young female learners would, perhaps, phase out in favor of common sense and rational thought. Regretfully, this does not seem the case. When I went home for Easter last year, my eighth-grade sister reported that she was banned from wearing leggings because they are “immodest” and “revealing.” In telling her to cover up, the school disrupted her learning process. Suddenly, the purported needs of the faceless “everyone else” very specifically trumped her own. When we tell young women—all women—to cover themselves and their supposed sexualization of self, we objectify their bodies and, in turn, utterly disrupt and damage their sense of self-worth.

As some environments are more professional than others—work and school among them—one may reasonably discern that the required appropriate apparel reflects such formality. Yet, as a culture we persist  in the practice of telling our young women that they must cover up for modesty’s sake. This practice sends a message, not covertly, to women that they are viewed across society as inherently sexual objects who must take pains to alter their appearance to restrict their natural sexual appeal. While we appeal to standards of modesty to police what women wear, we employ the term “professionalism” to decry the habits of men who may don sagging pants and tank tops in formal realms. This problematic conflation of two very different words—modesty and professionalism—reflects the clear and decisive message about the female body our society projects. Moreover, it employs convoluted logic to weakly argue that female students “cause a distraction or disruption to the classroom learning environment.” This past weekend I thought long and hard about why our mainstream culture today upholds the idea that what a woman wears may be deemed “distracting” to men, and I concluded the following: responsible for the origin and perpetuation of sexist objectifications, our culture reinforces the sexualization of female bodies at all levels to maintain a strict gender hierarchy.

On a global scale, though very much specific to the United States, women are sexualized as a measure of their self-worth. Flip open any magazine, and view an advertisement to see the success of patriarchal rule: the commodification of female bodies to sell product. Why are women so openly made into sexualized vessels and men are not? If you think I’m making a big stink about some small or nonexistent problem, I invite an analysis of popular publications: Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition, perhaps? If the giant billboard right down the highway from the College of the Holy Cross, featuring the Hooters Owl alongside the gaudy, repugnant slogan, “Eyes on the Road, Buddy” indicates anything at all, it must be the rampant sexual innuendo employed to desecrate female bodies that dominates our culture. Such practice denigrates women to a subservient, objectified class and denies their personhood. To those who read this and write my disgust off as prudishness, do not critique me until you take a real hard look at the controversy surrounding a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. In states, communities, and cultures across the United States, women are shamed for and in many cases banned from breastfeeding children in public. So much has our patriarchal culture sexualized the female body as an object for male pleasure and gaze, that we condemn women who use their breasts for a natural, anatomical, non-sexual function in public.

Allow me a moment to dissect the statement that the patriarchal culture of the United States has, in 2016, so over-sexualized the female body that seeing a woman breastfeed in public—quite literally, the functional purpose of breasts—is, at best, “immodest,” and, at most, a ludicrous characterization of being “disgusting” and “dirty.” Aside from such truth dismantling the male-centric theory that the existence of playboy bunnies indicates the fullness of “female autonomy,”  it reveals a very poignant conclusion to my original dissection of dress codes in public schools across the country.

The culture of the United States today offers a war zone, one in which we unacceptably sexualize women. So much do we obliterate the value of women past their bodies that as a collective culture we argue whether or not it seems acceptable that women publically nurse their children. We debate the merit of a twelve-year-old, because her training bra strap slipped out from under the sleeve of her t-shirt. I bring the question to you, reader: for whom do these restrictions exist? Certainly they cannot be for the women themselves—who, appealing to all common logic, do not see their actions as “sexual” in any case. I conclude that our male-dominated society restricts the actions and apparel choices of women and girls to cater to the needs of men and boys. Today, in the 21st century, we see patriarchal reign police female autonomy as it simultaneously rejects resulting responsibility. Suddenly, the subsequent series of arbitrary and insulting cultural norms hyper-sexualizing the female body are thrust back upon the strong shoulders of women who, like a modern-day Atlas, must carry the world.

When dress codes instruct women to dress modestly for the sake of “limiting distraction to male peers” we see a double standard that has, as all double standards do, fundamental flaws. It’s the same prescribed code of conduct that instructs women to “dress modestly” to dissuade catcalls and groping as they walk down the street. In an extreme, though not entirely far-fetched tract, it’s the logic that allows the question of “well, what was she wearing?” to morph into a real factor which requires serious deliberation in courtrooms, as if the resulting answer of “a tank top with bra straps showing” or a “dark brown, men’s small, community, long-sleeved t-shirt” offers a reputable excuse for sexual assault and other unspeakable crimes. And, quite frankly, I will have no more of it.

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