Have you seen this poster? It was created for a high school in Wisconsin in prep for prom night, apparently to encourage girls to keep themselves chaste and virtuous. The high school has since removed the poster after numerous complaints against its "slut-shaming" message. If this poster proves anything, it's that we're still battling the insidious perception that a woman's character is dependent on her sexual behavior.
But the problem of prom goes far beyond just short-sighted attempts to police a woman's sexuality. I went to a conservative Catholic high school that maintained strict school dress codes throughout my education. But despite not being allowed to wear backless dresses or super short skirts, I never gave the underlying message of school dress codes a second thought. But now that I see posters like this, and stories like this one of a young girl forced to leave her prom because her (seemingly very modest) dress was deemed inappropriate, I'm starting to think more and more about my own history with dress codes.
As a thin, lanky teenager, it was nearly impossible for me to look hyper-sexual. But put what I wore on my best friend from high school who is busty and curvy, and suddenly you'd have an outrage. I'm not sure it's okay for school officials to police the female body to begin with, but when you add the complexity that they police only certain types of women's bodies that are especially "womanly," you have a whole other layer of problematic thinking. Something in me rises up when I realize this distinction: will we continue teaching curvy women at every turn that their bodies are lesser-than? That they are limiting? That they are wrong?
The fact is, teaching a girl early on that her body is something that needs to be covered in certain ways in order to be appropriate creates the life long perception that she should be ashamed of her natural form. Just look at this story of a five-year-old girl made to cover up for wearing a spaghetti-strap sundress. The question that comes to my mind most is: who is being threatened by a skimpy dress? Who is the victim of a backless prom gown? Defenders of dress code policy would probably say the dress victimizes the wearer. But it seems to me that those that are disturbed by a flash of shoulder or a curve of lower back are far more threatened (and perhaps threatening?) than the wearer. Until we can say to every young woman your body is acceptable and safe and good and YOURS, we have really gotten nowhere.