This high school principal's sexist letter about dress code is offending a lot of people
Over the last year or so, we’ve been seeing students fight their administrations on the subject of dress codes, often because middle and high schoolers find that these rules unfairly target girls. Unfortunately, too many dress codes objectify young women and the enforcement often compromises their educations, taking girls out of class until a change of clothes can be found, if not outright suspending female students. This, of course, sends the message that it is more important to the administration that straight boys exist in a “distraction-free environment” than it is for a girl to receive an uninterrupted education. Note that “distractions” at some schools are dresses/skirts/shorts with hems that don’t pass the “fingertip rule,” at other schools merely showing one’s clavicle bone can result in punishment.
We’ve seen a lot of sexist dress codes brought to light in the past year (thanks to the Internet, the great equalizer), and though we are by no means anesthetized to these unfair practices, we have to admit that this latest case of promoting sexist dress codes really warrants some extra discussion.
So here’s what happened: As PEOPLE magazine reports, Jim Bazen, principal at Plymouth Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where, it should be noted, students wear uniforms) recently wrote an online editorial for Michigan Live in response to an opinion piece published in the Grand Rapids Press entitled “School dress codes have a serious sexism problem.”
In Bazen’s response, entitled “Dress codes keep girls from becoming ‘sex objects,'” Bazen claims that “The only way you can help young men not treat young ladies as sex objects is by telling the young ladies to cover up… A young man may have no intention to lust, yet when an immodestly dressed girl passes him in the hall, he will think sexual thoughts.”
Later in his editorial, he insists that “By requiring female students to dress modestly, we are not penalizing them. We are protecting them!”
He illuminates what exactly he believes a dress code protects these women from in his closing.
“Women should be afraid of those who admire them only for their ‘great body.’ We would like them to preserve this wonderful gift (virginity) for their ‘one and only.”‘
Bazen has come under a ton of fire for his letter, and the anger directed at Bazen echoes the anger that has been directed at many proponents and enforcers of dress codes. In his efforts to ensure that female students are not treated like “sex objects,” he’s unfortunately still objectifying them, putting an uncomfortable amount of focus on girls’ bodies, and treating the straight male sexual impulse as a force of nature, something that cannot be controlled and must therefore be endured — all of which we could not disagree with more. Women should not be treated like objects or helpless creatures that must be protected. Which brings us to his statement about virginity. We’re assuming he’s defining virginity in this case, as when a woman experiences vaginal penetration via a male penis for the first time, which I promise was just as awkward for me to write as it was for you to read, but it’s important to get it all out there because it is an incredibly narrow and heteronormative way to define virginity. It’s also troubling to put such a premium on a girl’s virginity, we are uncomfortable with the idea of treating a girl’s virginity (however she chooses to define it) as “a gift,” because that implies that once she no longer has her virginity, she’s has given away something of value and thus has less value. Yet another example of Bazen insisting he is against the objectification of women while doing… just that.
We’re not the only ones who were made extremely uncomfortable by Bazen’s letter. Women’s rights activists in Michigan have some strong words re: Bazen’s assertions.
“Jim Bazen is the problem, not women and girls who wear what they want without the expectation that they are going to be policed or objectified,” says Marissa Luna, of the nonprofit group Progress Michigan, told PEOPLE. “[His] sexist attitude towards women and his proposed solution actually only further engrains the type of thinking that women are sex objects.”
Meanwhile, Lori Carpenter, CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan agrees that this letter, which purports to protect women from objectification, most definitely objectifies women, and argues that the solution to objectification is not a stricter dress code.
“We agree that there is inherent sexism in many school dress codes,” Carpenter told PEOPLE. “This is why we offer age-appropriate, medically-accurate sex education that teaches young people about self-respect, respect for the bodily integrity of others and how to abstain from sexual activity. The best way for young people – male or female – to protect their virginity, is to learn how to set their own boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others.”
So, upon hearing criticism of his editorial, did Bazen change his tune? Unfortunately, mostly no.
“I stand by what I wrote because I think that dressing provocatively is degrading to women,” Bazen told PEOPLE. “Now, I also wish I’d added, ‘Men, you need to control your eyes. You need to look away instead of make a woman a sex object in your mind.’ But I stand by my basic thought: The way to help women is to get rid of pornography, and get rid of the dress that is provocative.”
We’re glad Bazen at least heard PART of the argument. We wish he had heard more. But we are glad that activists are using this letter as a teaching moment and helping those around them understand what is so wrongheaded about Bazen’s arguments.
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