Froma Harrop: Dress codes and female dignity

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

 

How many among us recognize the name of Yolande Betbeze Fox, the Alabama beauty who died recently at the age of 87?

Fox blazed quite a trail through American culture when, as Miss America of 1951, she refused to reign in a bathing suit. The swimsuit-maker sponsoring the pageant was not pleased.

Educated in a convent in Mobile, Fox championed a certain propriety in dress. She found the idea of parading half-naked around America most distasteful. Fox moved on to become a prominent progressive activist in New York and Washington, D.C. She knew at the age of 22 that no one would take her seriously in a bathing suit.

You wonder how Fox would respond to a convoluted feminist debate, one side of which holds that women should be taken seriously no matter how they dress. It’s been expanded to condemn high-school dress codes — arguing they are sexist because they force the girls to de-emphasize their breasts, legs and rear ends. A kind of “body shaming,” if you will. If the girls’ fashion choices arouse the boys, it’s the boys’ problem.

This argument has some teeth, though only baby teeth. It’s true that the sternest dress codes apply to the girls, but that’s because the boys are already mostly covered up. Many such dress codes do include the boys. Arkansas, for example, bans showing underwear or revealing the crack of one’s butt.

The fact remains that in most professions, the fully clothed man projects more authority than the woman flashing her flesh. It’s sad to see smart women on serious news shows exposing their arms, their lower thighs and often their cleavage — while the men’s dignity and paunch are protected in tailoring. Have you ever seen a male commentator wearing shorts?

Many professional women have spoken resentfully of the pressures to dress seductively for TV. So why would any branch of feminism egg on high-school girls to voluntarily do to themselves what their older sisters and mothers are fighting against?

One wishes the allegedly serious media (The Atlantic and The Nation) would stop playing the dope by feeding an academic feminism that goes inert at the street level. Again, it’s the notion that the boys have no business salivating at the nipples popping out of a girl’s spandex T-shirt.

A female student at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Kentucky, was sent home for wearing a tight, low-cut T-shirt and jeans straining at the seams. Rather than help her to change into something a bit more modest, her mother, Stacie Dunn, posted the picture of her badly dressed daughter online. It went viral, we are stunned to learn.

We forgot, the boys and men are not supposed to ogle. It’s their fault. But one might ask Dunn’s daughter whether she wore circulation-constricting jeans and a tight tank top to school because they are comfortable.

Now, school administrators should be ultra-careful about not letting boys who misbehave off the hook. And when calling out a student for inappropriate dress, they should do so with quiet sensitivity.

The girls, meanwhile, might look to their cool older sisters for direction. A style writer observing the innovative summer dress of 20-somethings in hipster Brooklyn noted, “There is nary a spaghetti strap or strappy stiletto to be found.”

High-school girls from South Orange, New Jersey, have launched a highly successful #IAmMoreThanADistraction campaign on Twitter. Too bad Miss America of 1951 was born too soon to turn her famous line into a hashtag: #IAmAnOperaSingerNotAPinup.

That would have made for an intelligent conversation.

Email: fharrop@gmail.com

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