Everyday Sexism in high schools: School dress codes – a personal account.

I’ve juggled many activities to occupy my time since graduating from University. Earlier this year, I decided to utilise my fervent desire to help others by taking a Teaching Assistant position in a high school.

Akin to most support staff, my initial preference was potato-printing with 5 five year olds and talking favourite One Direction members with Year 6’s (previously Zayn, now Harry). Before long however, my recruitment agency intervened to elect me as crowd control and GCSE support to the teens of today; a position in which you are constantly reminded of how quickly youth escapes you, as you are surrounded by people who think anybody 20+ is old.

Fortunately, most teenagers are manageable and the newly-built school is so modern and business-like, (cabinets of laptops for every classroom?!) it bares little resemblance to my own adolescent experience. A hardcore ‘Smiths fan at age 13, school was not my happy place. I was the kind of kid who persistently asked why institutions restrict individual expression and how a maths formula will be useful in the real world?!?! In other words I was a barrel of laughs, yet ‘always a pleasure to teach’. In a pattern familiar to prior generations, I have since learned to feign apathy towards the irrational expectations put upon you in life and thus get on with it.

Women and Self-love

An obvious perk of working with children is your newfound ability to help with their emotional development. Teenage girls are most likely to experience a sudden identity crisis and low self worth – fueled by the pressures of gender discrimination and learned self-objectification. As an adult who only overcame such hurdles after many years of self-taught self-love, the prospect of debugging the Myth of Woman was a big motivation for returning to the dreaded school gates.

My agency gave me the necessary details: arrive early, smart dress code. Conveniently, my wardrobe is full of suit jackets and the only two beauty products I use regularly are mascara and Vaseline. Despite being a tiny 5 “1 (and a half) I ditched my trusty high heels as well. Practicality had finally won; I looked the part of ‘normal person doing a job’.

The Dress (Code)

Monday mornings are universally sluggish. I tend to greet them with caffeine withdrawal and dragging feet but on one particular Monday I felt optimistic for the day ahead. My timetable promised me some friendly Year 10’s and an appeasing balance of literary and numeracy-based subjects. Plus, I donned a new work dress courtesy of my sister’s generosity during the weekend.

History was my appointed lesson after break and Year 11 were revising the topic of Hitler’s Germany, unsurprisingly. Revision lessons don’t require much intervention from support staff so I sat down somewhere to survey progress. After a few minutes, an unfamiliar face asked if there was a TA in the class.

“Great!” I thought, “maybe it’s about a student who needs a scribe or something, at least I have something to do – ” 

“I need to speak to you about the length of your skirt (it was a dress). It’s too short. Now we do actually have a dress code here. *I look down* Well… it rises when you walk, I was watching you walk up the stairs and it was rising up. I’m assuming you live too far away to go home and get changed?”

“Yeah I do. I did think it might be a bit figure-hugging –

It’s not that: it’s too short.

Oh, sorry, so has anyone said anything… –

Several members of staff have made complaints and I’m the business manager. And, some of the boys were looking up your skirt too I think, on the stairs.”

A strange response, not only in how adamant she was to tell me her job title but also that ‘several’ teachers had complained by 11.15am. Particularly when I’d interacted perfectly well with the two teachers who had seen me that morning. I am not the oblivious type so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some fabrications in her account. She also treated my attempts to communicate with her as though I were an insolent child, rather than an adult trying to be compliant. As she walked away, I compulsively pulled down my already lengthy dress so that it covered my knees while the paranoia I suffered in adolescence clouded my mind. Despite being shamed, I knew I had to walk back into the lesson with confidence: I was supposed to be somebody people respected.

Once I sat down, a feeling of acute self-consciousness overcame me. I hugged my arms for comfort – my mind already reeling off possible culprits of who had gossiped about me behind my back, and why.

The dress I wore.
The dress I wore.

My new found perspective on authority now seemed misguided. There was another lesson to go before lunch and ironically enough, I received two compliments on my dress during that time. 

It’s a frequent occurrence: society is entrenched in misogynistic beliefs, some of which are unknowingly internalised by women and spat back out to make other people feel as small.

Phallocentric Perspectives

Dress codes are inherently sexist because they elevate clothes made especially for men as professional and deem any sign of a female body inappropriate; sexual. The physicality of a woman is different to a man’s, but a female form isn’t necessarily sexual – it just ‘is’. In this specific case, I wore black and white to match school colours, a dress that finishes just above the knee, and flat shoes. There was nothing individual or intriguing about my appearance at all, let alone any sexuality on show. Unfortunately we are conditioned to hypersexualise a woman’s appearance.

Appropriate sign in a US high school
Appropriate sign in a US high school

Incidents like this are being flagged up on various social media sites as people become more aware of the subtle ways in which women are demeaned in their daily lives. I’d like to echo a popular statement on this topic: we need to prevent the objectification of women by teaching boys not to sexualise a girl’s appearance. This opposes the current system of inventing promiscuity from a person’s appearance and blaming them for your own preconceived projection. 

Schools have a responsibility to encourage progressive thinking in their pupils – and staff – including the rejection of gender discrimination. The rejuvenation of what it means to be a feminist will help this evolution take place but until then the internet provides a platform for women to document their experiences publicly. 

When You Love Yourself, Something Magical Happens…

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Sometimes people use loyalty to bind you to the toxic relationship you have with them. Ignore them, you don’t need the approval of anybody but yourself. It’s an act of self-preservation to disconnect from people who treat you badly.

The difference between selfishness and self-love is that the first is done at the expense of what’s better for yourself and others, while the latter is a necessary act of self-care.

Feelings of guilt

For years I let feelings of guilt trap me in toxic relationships (platonic and romantic) and trick me into uncomfortable situations until I realised it’s okay to value your own mental health. Remember to always balance what’s best for everybody involved in every conversation, long-term relationship or ordinary situation. Sometimes you should champion your own needs and sometimes other people take priority -trust your judgement and intuition.

Accepting yourself 

Reject expectations if those ideals hinder your life rather than exalt your happiness. An example would be how women are conditioned into passivity as though they are merely vessels for another person’s happiness. If somebody wrongs you on purpose, you are justified if you show them that actions have consequences. Actively try to accept yourself for who you are as an individual and you will succeed. Cancel out the negative self-talk chipping away at your self-worth because if you set aside limiting beliefs, you can do whatever you want to do. In fact, that’s what you should be doing. You are worthy and free to believe in yourself so you can make the most of life’s blessings.