The first time I got dress coded was in third grade. This was in 2008 when skorts were at the height of their popularity, and I was very excited to wear mine. At least I was excited until I was told my outfit was inappropriate by both my male teacher and the male principal. Because my skort was a little shorter than the length of my fingertips my mom had to bring me new clothes. I was upset but I got over it because I was told it was a rule and I've always been a stickler for the rules.
It wasn't until fifth grade that I learned the real reason schools enforce dress codes. I developed breasts at a young age, although I owned bras my mom did not feel I needed to wear one at all times since I was only eleven. Well one day I was called out of math class by the school nurse who informed me that the principal received a complaint that my outfit was inappropriate. I was confused because I was wearing appropriate shorts and a white polo shirt buttoned up to my neck. The nurse continued by suggesting that I wear my jacket for the rest of the school day, even though it was the end of spring and unbearably hot. According to her this was to prevent the boys from staring at my chest and to protect me from the cruel things they might say about me. As I sat in class distracted, unnerved and later as I cried to my mom because I didn't understand why I was being punished. I realized that I was not forced to wear my jacket because of the rules, the dress code in my district does not require women to wear bras at any age, I was dress coded because a teacher with a vendetta saw an opportunity to embarrass me. But don't worry my mom called and ripped the principal a new one, and I never got dress coded in that school again.
I also learned a lesson from this experience. It was in that moment I understood that society wanted me to hide and feel ashamed of my body in order not to distract the males around me. Body shaming does not begin in high school at the hands of cruel kids, it begins at puberty which for kids like me came early. And the shame is ingrained in our heads as early as elementary school by the people we trust to protect us.
In high school the dress code simply got more ridiculous. I was told I could not wear a tank top because it showed my shoulders and the boys in my classes might get distracted. I could not believe it, I was losing valuable learning time being pulled from my class because my shoulders, the least sexual part of a women's body, were visible. Pulling women out of class for a dress code violation serves no purpose other than to teach them that their education is valued less than that of their male counter parts.
At some point in the life of every girl the problem goes beyond body shaming and becomes about fear. When I was old enough to understand rape, I began to fear for my safety. In school, my health teachers drilled into our heads to always walk in groups, and to never put our drinks down at a party. For some reason, it seemed more important to teach women how to prevent rape, than to teach men not to rape, and the meaning of consent. We live in a world where rape and assault victims are afraid to speak out against their attackers because they are afraid of not being taken seriously or being ridiculed by their peers. A world where blame is placed on the victim with questions like "what was she wearing?", "how much did she have to drink?", and "did she come onto him first?" A world where "rapist" are not convicted or given shorter sentences as to not ruin their lives, without considering the detrimental effect on the life of the victim. Rape culture begins with something as simple as the dress code and gets worse as women grow up.
I always felt safest when walking with my 140 pound Bernese Mountain dog because even though he was friendly his tough demeanor intimidated people enough to steer clear of us. When my beloved dog got too old to accompany me I stopped going on walks all together because enjoying nature becomes difficult when the voice in the back of my head is repeatedly telling me to look over my shoulder, the paralyzing fear of an attack was overwhelming.
Society has taught me that as a 5'3", 19-year-old woman I shouldn't walk alone, I should carry pepper spray or a personal alarm on my person at all times or I run the risk of being hurt. But I will no longer let my actions be determined by fear. I walk around my college campus, and my neighborhood at all hours of the day, even at night, and although I still get nervous on especially eerie nights I am much happier not allowing fear to control my actions and to prevent me from doing something I enjoy. And I no longer think twice before wearing an outfit that makes me feel good about myself because it might make someone uncomfortable. I refuse to be afraid for my niece, cousins, and for the next generation of girls. With the hope that by the time they are old enough to read this article, their world is different. Although they are some of the lucky ones that will be brought up the way I was by fathers who respect women, and by strong women who know their worth and believe in themselves. Something has to change, the world has to get better for everyone.