I Am (Still) More Than a Distraction // Natalie Raymond, B.A.

The enforcement of school dress codes aimed largely at girls and young women have been making headlines recently. Female students – or their justifiably irate parents – have lately taken en masse to social media, posting photos of the outfits that got them sent home, often accompanied by the hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction.

The outrage stems from the realization that we are teaching our young women that their learning and freedom are less important than that of their male counterparts, and reinforcing the long-standing myth that it is up to women to conceal themselves so that men won’t have to control themselves. And it is, indeed, outrageous. My research centers on sexual assault prevention, so I can say with certainty that these myths do not go away. They start early, they are continually reinforced, and they support rape culture, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming throughout the lifespan and our society.

I remember dress codes when I was in middle and high school. I remember applying the “fingertip test” to my skirts, and the “two finger” test to my tank top straps. I remember fuming in the counselor’s office, and thinking, as I often did while waiting to leave for college, One day none of this will matter.

Unfortunately, now I am the counselor, and that day has yet to arrive. Just this month, I was sent home from my first practicum site because my dress was too short. My supervisor, herself an intern, pulled me aside and said that other staff not comfortable with addressing me personally had told her that I had to go home and change. No matter that I was in meetings all morning and leaving at noon, without a client in sight. No chance for discussion. No choice but to leave and return, humiliated, an hour later…wearing pants.

I have obsessed about the details of the situation. The dress I was wearing passed every arbitrary test of length. On the whole, I thought the outfit was appropriate and professional. I wasn’t even seeing clients!, I cried. So and so’s dress is shorter! None of this is the point.
The point is not what I was wearing but how I was treated because of it. I was informed of its inappropriateness by a third party and given no choice in the matter. Given the circumstances, the punishment was excessive and shaming. Because of the way it was handled, I now feel self-conscious and fearful when I get dressed for work. I don’t know which of my coworkers raised the original objection, so I view them all with suspicion. In short, it was disrespectful, hurtful, and not how I am used to being treated.

Needless to say, posts about dress codes and the slut-shaming of young women suddenly gained a lot of immediacy in my newsfeed. I thought about all the other projects I’m engaged in this fall; leading seminars for undergraduates on empowerment and assertiveness; heading a research team whose mission is creating positive understandings of sexuality; guiding multiple young, female clients through recovery from trauma, assault, and fear. How can I do any of that when I can still get sent home from work without even the dignity of a direct conversation? How can I help others to become strong women, when I was so quickly reduced to a level of powerlessness and humiliation that I haven’t felt since I was a child?

Or rather, how can I not? Once the hurt had faded, I realized: this is exactly why my line of research is needed. Indignation, once sparked, began to steadily burn away my shame, and I was left more eager than ever to get back to my work, especially that which focuses on empowering other women.

In considering this work, and work generally, I want to make clear that I understand why dress codes exist, and why as a future psychologist, conducting myself within the boundaries of professionalism is so crucial. Training from a Feminist perspective, I am constantly aware of how I impact my clients. When I worked at a residential facility for adolescents with eating disorders, did I refrain from wearing the kinds of form-fitting clothing they were denied? Certainly. Not to do so would have been cruel. When I had a client whose religion forbade women from wearing makeup, did I stop wearing lipstick to sessions? Absolutely not. We processed the crap out of it, but absolutely not.

In short, I dress for myself, but I also dress for work with my clients’ best interests in mind. I would not wear anything that I thought would be triggering, distracting, or harmful to their progress. But I also don’t leave my identity at the door. My orientation won’t allow it and my values wouldn’t want to. I don’t aim to be a blank slate, and addressing the interplay of our respective identities has proved to be a powerful tool in strengthening the therapeutic alliance, as with the above example of the lipstick.

I am who I am, I care about my work, and I don’t need an Indiana mole woman gown to prove it. I deserve respect, compassion, and courteous treatment every bit as much as my clients: and so do the younger women who experience the same consequences (and worse) every day for their attire. As a Feminist psychologist-in-training, I work to embody the ideals that I espouse via my research and my practice. I want to be the things I help other women be: empowered, assertive, and strong.

I want to tell younger women that dress codes, and other gender-biased rules, aren’t just something you have to put up with until you graduate: they follow you everywhere. The fight that young women and their families are beginning, school by school, district by district, is not just inspirational. It’s essential. Sexism starts young, and so empowerment must start young, too.

So young women, please, keep fighting. You are so much more than a distraction: and so am I. 

Written by Natalie Raymond, B.A.

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