More Ben

Dolor sit amet

look out, kids, it’s the middle-aged fashion police

Earlier this month, a North Carolina high school graduate had his diploma withheld because he had tarnished his ceremonial gown (single-user polyethylene terephthalate) by draping a Mexican flag over it.

School administrators responded to subsequent media questioning with the following: “The heart of the issue is the fact that the student did not follow the established dress code for the event and detracted from the importance and the solemnity of the ceremony,” officials said in one of two statements. “Our dress code is in place to ensure the dignity of the event is upheld and is fair to all students.”

Weird. Old-timey. But far from uncommon.

When I graduated high school, I remember it was imperative to the organizers of the event that we were dressed at least semi-formally beneath our plastic gowns. If we’d fucked up by wearing the wrong shirt (which would, of course, be completely obscured by the weird cult robe we were obligated to purchase) our diplomas could be similarly withheld.

What a bizarre punishment. My peers and I could put in all the required work to graduate and have it all upended for a uniform violation.

I saw another grad season news story, this one painted with a feel-good filter, about a graduating senior who failed to wear the right shoes and was saved by a teacher who offered his own.

Good on the teacher; very cool, very nice. But the problem he’s fixing is the same. This kid did the work. We’re gonna ignore that because he’s got on Nikes instead of tap shoes?

The administrator I quoted above refers to the “importance and solemnity of the ceremony”. What the fuck? A nearly-mandatory event held in an overheated concrete box where the underpaid and underserved coalesce to cosplay college?

Graduating high school in the United States isn’t what it used to be. That’s a good thing. (Mostly) gone are the days of drunkenly cruising off from the graduation ceremony with the boys for one last chance at life before the birth of your prom night daughter. But the feeling that graduating high school should be a monumental and ceremonial right of passage fails to fade.

I should acknowledge that for some people, getting to 18 or 19 with a diploma in hand is a matter of legitimate pride; they may be the first in their family to accomplish the feat and have experienced undue adversity in doing so. I don’t mean to trivialize their experience by conflating it with my own relative privilege. My obstacles to graduation started with video game progress and ended with apathy.

But what the hell is the solemnity of the situation? Children dress up in funny dresses to listen to a peer who doesn’t know any more about adulthood than they do pretend to be an expert on it for half an hour. They walk across a stage, rotate a skyward nipple tassel, and that’s it. Hats are thrown in a regulated manner.

I wouldn’t have cared if someone had shown up to my graduation ceremony draped in a Mexican flag. To be fair, I wouldn’t have cared if someone would have been dressed as Ronald McDonald or the Prophet of Truth. But this kid doesn’t get to have his work recognized because he demonstrated his pride incorrectly? Stupid.

It’s time we got over the expectation that high school administrators maintain a bizarre level of power over student expression.

Before I’d first seen the story about the Mexican flag, I read a much more uncomfortable story about high school yearbook officials who had (very poorly) doctored pictures of high school girls they considered provocative. To respond, some genius who had no right to include Photoshop in the skills section of his resume spent a few overtime hours making sure high school girls didn’t look too sexually appealing.

He’s not the first educator to be charged with that responsibility. I remember my middle school teachers steadfastly enforcing the rule that girls’ shorts had to end lower than their fingertips. Abraham Lincoln would have been fucked if he hadn’t been blessed with a penis.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be taken out of class and forced to either call home or wear the pants the school keeps in case a kid has an accident because an over-the-hill adult thinks you’re dressed like a harlot. Similarly, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have that body shaming immortalized by the presence of a poorly-stretched jpeg of a flannel square slapped on your chest in a yearbook photo, a fun scarlet letter for the digital generation.

Luckily, I never had to imagine such a thing – not because of responsible teachers, obviously — some of mine could creep with the best of ’em. No, the arbiter of my fortune was the only trait I share with Lincoln: the possession of one (1) experience-defining penis.

I remember high school being better than the nightmare that was middle school for more reasons than this, but I also still remember girls being held to a dress code more strictly than their male counterparts. Shorts too high and shirts too low could be dangerous. Meanwhile, while I was there, it had become trendy among a certain male cohort to wear bro tanks whose arm holes started at the interior edge of the areola and clung to their torsos looser than Mufasa to a precipice.

As with most equality-related issues, my hope obviously isn’t that boys be held to the same standard that girls are. Big statement here, but I’m actually against the sexualization of children, regardless of gender.

These policies fail at the barest examination. While you can apparently police how girls and women dress in 2021, it’s become gauche to accuse them directly of whoredom, so in most cases, their crime becomes one of distraction. For every square inch of exposed flesh, the GPA of a girl’s male neighbors drops by .1. 10 inches and they start losing scholarships. 20 inches and they won’t be able to even consider desecrating their graduation gown with a symbol of national pride.

The idea that boys are totally unable to focus on schoolwork (or anything) in the presence of attractive peers is inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst, playing into the idea that it’s women, not men, who are responsible for male sexual behavior.

And thats the argument we have to spend the most time on, because it’s the shield these regulators live by. Some might find fortune in slippery slope arguments that ask if we’d think it appropriate if students started showing up to school naked or covered head-to-toe in almond butter. In these moments, we may acquiesce that a certain dress code may be warranted. But it’s they then who must justify why theirs is.

Undoubtedly, we’ll be led back to the female body as an unintentional weapon in the devil’s arsenal of lust, one that magnetizes the attention of boys in a way that they cannot help but submit to. But we have to know that’s bullshit. High school boys have access to the internet — they know what a woman’s body looks like, and it doesn’t send them into insane spasms of unconscious action. They, like their here-objectified counterparts, are developing and doing their best with that. And as clumsy as they may be, they’re in control of their own bodies. 

If I had been so obsessed with the appearance of a classmate that I couldn’t put pencil to scantron sheet for a full 50 minutes, I agree that the teacher should have intervened — clearly, I need some help with my broken brain. Even the most hormone-addled 16 year old can put his preoccupations aside to get through a class. No one has ever dropped a grade level because of what another student was wearing. I kinda doubt anyone’s ever lied about it. And while judging others for their clothing choices is a middle school pastime, I don’t think “your outfit distracts me from learning” is an utterance heard by anyone.

So if we can agree that the clothing choices of students aren’t bothering their peers, who are they bothering? The answer is obvious. Moralistic teachers who want to prescribe their ideas of morality onto students and who have manufactured a reason to do so. The idea in their heads is that students do not dress in a manner they consider sexually provocative. (Now, even if you agree with this, remember that, as a rule, this becomes enforced as vaguely as it sounds — the bell curves of “could be considered sexually provocative” and “normal clothing choices of your average 16 year old” share significant overlap). By arguing that those who do are distracting their peers, they establish an environmentally-sanctioned casus belli to act as moral police. Well-meaning and normal girls then fall prey to a system that punishes them for dressing like their peers.

Because that’s what motivates teenagers — they want to be liked, they want to be accepted. They dress the way they hope to be received. So what’s stopping a kid from showing up to school naked? The same thing that makes me put pants on when I take my garbage out. It’s not the threat of punishment — it’s the idea of embarrassment, a force much more powerful in the minds of children than in folks my age.

Trust kids to make the right decisions and step in when you have to. Set clothing restrictions if you must, but, as with nearly everything, remain open to questioning. Ask whether it’s worth it to remove a child from class because she’s wearing something all of her friends wear, and give in to your doubt when you wonder whether an inoffensive flag at a graduation ceremony is a reason to refuse a student a symbol of their accomplishments.

There are folks who will use their power to try to make others follow their rules on their terms. It’s not enough to think about the wording of a rule; we have to understand the ideas of those who would enforce it.

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