Why you should care

Because I can dress myself, thank you very much.  

More than a decade after history’s most infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” the righteous indignation over Janet Jackson’s nip slip during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show continues. But where is the outrage over the cheerleader butt cheek that continues to be flashed from the sidelines? And why doesn’t the FCC sanction the hardly clothed, explicitly provocative models in the beer commercials that run between plays?

The lesson here is that it’s fine to brandish cleavage — or whatever — under ordained circumstances (read: those established by men). Otherwise, it’s not just cultural obscenity but a punishable offense. The mixed messages teenagers get make some unholy cacophony. Even as school boards forbid shoulder baring and require bottoms to pass the “thumb rule,” juniors stores sell little but tank tops and short shorts. Enough with it all, we say: Abolish dress codes, once and for all. It’s time for women — not the government or FCC or schools — to decide what we’re going to wear and when.

Which is why, much the same way second-wave feminists burned their bras, I’ll be ditching my bikini top this summer. Who decided it’s OK for Vladimir Putin to parade around topless but not women? And no, this is not licentiousness, or sluttiness, or whatever. This is about fighting the message that it’s OK for society to sexualize women, but not for a woman to bare her body on her own terms. “It’s a double bind,” says Lisa Corrigan, co-chair of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, and “a standard no boy ever has to meet.”

Self-objectification has been repeatedly shown to inhibit concentration.

Thankfully, I’ll have plenty of pioneers to lean on for courage when I stand up to the Puritan police. A growing number of teenagers are rebelling against what they consider shaming dress codes. Just last month, students at a New Jersey high school staged a protest, arguing that its strict dress code “perpetuates rape culture by suggesting to girls that their way of dress is punishable and justifies their sexualization. … The true issue lies in a culture that sexualizes girls, not in the supposed tantalizing nature of spaghetti-straps.”

Amen, sister.

No comment from the school, by the way. And look, I don’t think teenage girls should be wearing 5-inch heels and miniskirts to class, but publicly shaming them with inherently sexist rules is worse. Educators should instead focus on teaching students about self-respect and self-expression, and build their confidence so they don’t seek validation with their bodies. Science supports this approach. An American Psychological Association study shows self-objectifying, which is when we women — either consciously or unconsciously — evaluate ourselves based on appearance or sex appeal, undermines confidence while breeding shame, anxiety and self-disgust. To top it off, self-objectification has also been repeatedly shown to inhibit concentration. So even as schools are telling girls to cover up so they don’t distract the boys, they’re impairing her ability to mentally perform.

Deborah Tolman, a human development psychologist at the Hunter College School of Social Work, argues dress codes are a way to impose order. The only reason they might target girls more is because girls are the ones flaunting them, she says. As soon as men’s stores start selling nothing but halter tops, I’ll agree. In the meantime, my bathing suit budget this summer just got cut in half.

Should feminists burn their bikini tops?

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