I grew up in a little town in Oregon that boasted it’s idyllic tree lined streets and high safety rating. As a kid, I remember sitting in the back seat, peering out the window as my parents dropped my big brother off at school. Junior High was the big time. The concrete building out at the edge of town poured out kids who seemed to be swimming in their newly found freedoms of teenagedom.
Ten years younger than my brother, I could still hardly imagine such freedoms. Kids had headphones and listened to whatever music they wanted, whenever they wanted. They sat outside unaccompanied by their parents. They expressed their style through their clothes, something I knew little about.
Elementary School was a bubble of pink legging pants and Babysitter Club books. I couldn’t imagine at six how that would change.
When I did finally get my chance to graduate and walk through those doors, I found new rules awaited me. As I grew, so did the worlds interpretation of me. Wearing leggings for pants, for one, was no longer acceptable. Bras became a necessary function to help hide the fact that I had nipples. And, somehow most arbitrary of all, the tank top rule. No strap may fall under 2″ in width.
If you’ve ever been a 15 year old girl you know that looking and feeling attractive is important. This ought not be a crime, as you are midway through puberty, in the midst of discovering dating, and in some states only one year away from the legal age of consent. I enjoyed getting the freedoms to finally pick out my own clothes, dress to fit my style, and figure out what exactly that style was. This process is highly discriminated against, frequently perverted, and honestly quite disturbed. How was I supposed to figure out my sexuality if I felt like I was being sexualized?
Anyways, most straps fell under two inches.
I wanted to argue that showing one more inch of shoulder would not distract the boys. (Lets take a moment of silence for this heteronormativity, as I’m certain I saw a few girls eying my scandalous shoulders as well.) If it did distract them, however, should that not be reason for concern? Who are these boys who are gazing past the board, straight to my arm sockets? Did they want to nibble on my freckled bony parts?
One day I wore a 1″ tank top with a sweater on the top. I got pulled over on my way back to class from lunch by a woman of some unknown origin. I liked to think of her as the shoulder police. She wrote me up for breaking the dress code.
But I’m wearing a sweater, I thought it would be okay, I stated in my case.
We have no way of trusting that you won’t take that sweater off, she said.
I felt like I’d just gotten caught driving over the speed limit. I promise I won’t do it again! I’ve learned my lesson! (Funny that the only other time I got written up was for “walking too fast.”)
She pulled me into a room and offered me my choice of dusty XL shame shirts. I somehow snuck out undetected and made it through the rest of the day without a problem. I didn’t wear that shirt again.
I thought about that moment off and on throughout middle school, high school, all the way through college. I never knew exactly what made me feel so indignant about it. I knew if I told anyone, they’d just tell me I was complaining about the rules, typical of teenagers, always upset because they were just too young to understand. At twenty five I still feel a bit the same. Why am I bringing it up? Why do I even remember it?
It’s certain that schools should have dress codes. But as dress codes stood in my time, they felt like the great reinforcer of purity. Girls need to hide the fact that they are becoming women because boys, in particular, shouldn’t see that side of them. And surely boys should hide their sweaty chests in class and not wear scoop pits, but the whole tone of that just felt different and lopsided, as if added simply to make everything seem more fair.
So here is my shout out in to the conversation. One small rather insignificant crime from my childhood still lingers with me today as I wake up in the morning and consider what I will wear.
There is no real conclusion I’ve come to. No real point to make. Just an observation of something that has been there all along.