Miryam is 23, but every morning before she leaves for work she may as well be 16. If she wears a dress or skirt, she pauses to make sure her dress passes “the fingertip rule”—meaning the hem falls below her arms, when placed at her side.
“When I try on a dress or skirt, I put my arms down to see if it’s short or not,” Miryam said. “It won’t stop me from buying it, but it will inform what sort of circumstances I wear it in. The other day at work, I wore a skirt that just made a cut for the rule, and I felt really weird about it.”
For women like Miryam, teenage dress codes influence outfits worn well after their first legal drink.
A favorite parlor game for my group of friends who attended the same all-girls’ boarding school is to regale those who didn’t with the story of how, one night before graduation, our dorm mothers went from room to room, inspecting the underwear we were going to wear on our big day.
They wanted to make sure the intimates were “nude” enough not to be spotted through our requisite white dresses. Now we tend stay away from clothing that is too see-through, for fear of who might stare.
When I posed a non-scientific survey to my Instagram story, asking whether women still abide by the rules, my DM inbox began resembling group therapy.
“Yes! No dresses above finger tip length!” responded one master’s student. A public relations account executive scream-typed, “FINGER TIP LENGTH HAUNTS MY ASS.”
“I still hear one teacher chasing me [on] the first day of senior year telling me my dress was too sheer,” read a business recruiter’s reply. “Haunts me to this day, and I’ve stopped wearing sheer items.”
This self-patrolling as adults is echoed in the continued patrolling of teenage girls’ dress at school today, where female students are sent home for their “revealing” dress.
Last year, a 17-year-old girl from Missouri was sent to the principal’s office because her “bustier, plus-size” figure rendered her ensemble of a long-sleeved peasant top and skinny jeans too distracting.
This August, a Texas high school’s video highlighting its “no athletic shorts” policy garnered viral criticism for the way it seemingly sexualized its subjects, as the camera panned up and down girls’ legs. The M.I.A. song “Bad Girls” inexplicably served as soundtrack–sample lyrics: “Live fast, die young/Bad girls do it well.”
One month ago, a girl from Palm Beach, Florida, was removed from her history class for wearing ripped jeans, but not before her teacher allegedly scolded the student, saying she “needed to consider the guys in her class and their hormones when choosing her wardrobe.”
Policing young women’s bodies is so rampant that even the ACLU took action. When a 17-year-old student from Florida’s Manatee County was told to change after going braless so as not to irritate her sunburn, the nonprofit sent her school district a letter warning administrators that demand was unconstitutional.
Per Title IX, dress codes can’t deem an outfit appropriate for one gender but off-limits for another. (Translation: If girls can’t wear athletic shorts, neither can boys.)
Growing up as a self-described “chubby” teenager in Westchester County, Miryam had a hard time finding clothes that were comfortable—let alone stylish. So when she picked up a trendy red top at Urban Outfitters that featured a billowing open back, she couldn’t wait to wear it to school.
“For me to wear something that exposed myself took courage,” she told The Daily Beast. “I was a little insecure, because I remember the fat roll situation with my jeans, but I still felt really cool. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I look awesome, no one else has anything else like this.’” For extra punch, she wore a bralette underneath, and “you could see a little bit of the lace.”
It was a short-lived victory. When Miryam got to her public high school, a teacher told her the look violated the dress code. “You could see the bottom half of my back. She told me that was too much exposure,” Miryam recalled.
The comment imploded Miryam’s newfound confidence. “Suddenly, I felt like I could feel the patch of skin,” she said. “It felt really shitty, and it made the rest of the day weird.” She never wore the shirt to school again.
Jasmine grew up attending a private Christian school in L.A. One day, as she sang in the choir, an English teacher overheard boys commenting on the neckline of her long-sleeved, gray henley shirt.
She was given a dress code violation, which was more than a standard detention or talking-to. “You also had to wear this ugly uniform they had on standby,” she recalled. “It was a baggy, dark navy blue polo with khakis. They were ill-fitting, and I’m not sure how often they got washed.”
While Jasmine pursued a “completely opposite experience” for college, attending a “very liberal” university, the ghost of that shame suit still rears its drab blue head.
“I was trained in high school to make sure my back wasn’t showing, so to this day, I catch myself pulling my shirt down,” she explained. “I still make that my skirt is at my fingertips. It’s just a habit. When you’re young, things get ingrained so easily.”
High school dress codes don’t just live on through modest coverage. Eileen Kelly, a New York City sex educator and model, wonders how much her buttoned-up Seattle upbringing and Catholic school education guided her present wear-whatever mentality.
“Our detention was called J.U.G., which stood for Justice Under God,” she said. “If we violated the dress code, we had to pick up trash after school.”
Kelly thinks she “saw through the bullshit” back then and didn’t let negative experiences affect her own body image. However, she felt spurred to defy her school-sanctioned slut shaming.
“I couldn’t push the envelope when I was in high school, and I think that influenced when I got to college and wanted to post things [that were] more provocative,” she mused. “My whole life, I had people telling me, ‘This is how you dress,’ and when I got away from that I wanted to explore who I was as a sexual being and a young, creative girl.”
According to Dr. Christia Spears Brown, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, “It’s a very shameful statement to be told how you’re dressing is distracting to boys. It sends the message that it’s the girl’s responsibility to be a moral regulator, whether it be in their behavior or in their dress.”
As anyone who has ever stayed up at night contemplating an awkward encounter knows, shame is a tough memory to shake off. “Humans tend to remember times they’ve been shamed,” Dr. Brown explained. For the most part, the emotion “serves a lot of purpose—it helps us try to do positive, ethical behavior, and we feel negative when we fail at that.”
The problem, according to Dr. Brown, “is when shame is inappropriately used to mandate one group’s behavior and not another group’s behavior.”
For the most part, men are given easy uniforms—they can wear button-ups and jeans through high school, college, and into the work force. For women, that simple ensemble gets tricky. Will the buttons go over my boobs? Will my jeans be too tight? Will anyone see my lower back when I sit down?
“Why do I have to waste my brain power on things like that?” Jasmine asked, through an exhausted sigh.