Back in college, I repeatedly auditioned for The Vagina Monologues. I never made the cast, but I did get pretty familiar with the content of the monologues. It’s been more years since college than I’d like to admit, but I still remember the opening to the monologue “My Short Skirt”:
“My short skirt is not an invitation/a provocation/an indication/that I want it or that I give it…my short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”
This was written by Eve Ensler almost 20 years ago, and it’s troubling how relevant it still is today. The past few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with response to this piece in the Atlantic by a middle school teacher who hates how her female students are dressing. She thinks they’re wearing skirts that are too short, and by enforcing a strict dress code, she’s engaged in a battle for the very souls of the next generation.
This irks me, because I’ve been there. In high school, we had a uniform of conservative pleated skirts, mostly eliminating any length issues. Yet I still remember a “casual day” when I wore a t-shirt and whatever length of jean shorts the Gap was selling that season, and got pulled aside by a dean and told that what I was wearing was inappropriate. I tried to explain that the shorts I was wearing were in fact longer than the field hockey kilt I was required to wear as a representative of the school at games, but the argument fell on deaf ears. I had to borrow a friend’s basketball shorts to wear for the rest of the day, and I was mortified. Even as an adult, I’ve had people pull me aside and inform me that the length of my skirt was making some people “uncomfortable.” I have two problems with incidents like this, but they both boil down to the same thing: this whole skirt situation isn’t my fault, and yet I’m the one who’s made to feel ashamed.
The first problem I have is simply one of logistics. I’m 5’11”, which has always made it hard to find bottoms of the right length, be it jeans or a skirt. Something that’s conservative on my shorter friends is probably going to look downright obscene on me. I’ve completely given up trying to shop at Forever 21 because it’s literally impossible to find a dress there that covers my underwear. Issues of height aside, the fact remains that girls aren’t dictating their bottom length. The fashion industry is. In the years when bermudas or cargo shorts aren’t in style, your choices are short shorts, or no shorts at all. Yet dress codes don’t allow for the fact that for those of us over 5’8″ who don’t want to wear jeans year-round, it is sometimes literally impossible to buy “appropriate” clothing.
The second problem is this – there’s nothing inherently upsetting about a skirt that comes above the knee. The implication in all cases is that the length of a skirt is distracting to teenage boys, or adult men, or whoever. And apparently the solution isn’t to tell these guys to get their minds out of the gutter, the solution is to tell us ladies to cover it up. The solution is to hand us XL men’s T-shirts or basketball shorts and say “this is what you get for wearing your own clothes, clothes that the fashion industry said were sellable, and that your mom let you out of the house in.” It’s teaching us that we are responsible for how men react to our bodies, and that’s a mere hop, skip, and jump away from blaming the victim in sexual assault cases. Plus, I’m sorry, have you met a teenage boy? Yes, they’re going to be distracted by a girl if her skirt is on the shorter side, but put that same girl in a shapeless sack and a teenage boy is going to be distracted by wondering what’s under it. You cannot short-circuit puberty by lowering hemlines.
I can almost see an argument for a certain amount of modesty being appropriate in certain situations, but here’s the thing – there’s nothing actually inappropriate about showing skin. Nudist colonies aren’t nonstop orgies, they’re just a place where people don’t wear clothes. It’s kind of like how we’re taught to be afraid of the dark, but there’s nothing inherently scary about a lack of light; it’s the idea that you can’t see the bad guys coming for you. There’s nothing inherently bad about showing skin, it’s that our culture chooses to sexualize that.
You know what’s hard? Addressing a culture that still has way too much inherent misogyny and finding a way to fix it. You know what’s easy? Telling a teenage girl that her clothes are wrong, and that she should feel like a bad person for wearing them. It would be so great if we could stop doing that; if we could create a culture where girls felt like they could wear whatever they wanted to school without having to worry about how anyone was going to react. Until I have the spare time to start a movement to put an end to stupid misogynistic dress codes, I’m going to do what I can, which is this: I’m going to stop judging people on their appearance, and hope that they’ll be kind enough to do the same for me.