Fit Friday: Tank Tops and Taking Up Space

It’s May, and Idaho has made that quick and awkward transition from cool-and-almost-springy to my-kids-come-in-from-recess-hot-and-smelly. I have third-graders who needed to start wearing deodorant this spring, which is a new one for me. My second year of teaching, I had that fun conversation with my fifth-grade boys about DEODOROANT>AXE**. Their big takeaway was, Ms. Danielle taught us how to get chicks in middle school! But, it got them to start showering daily and give up the Axe in favor of pit stick, so I marked it a success. I’ve had fourth grade girls start their periods before. But third grade… I was just not expecting it this year.

That first group of students I taught? They’re sophomores now, for three more weeks. Most of them are taller than I am. You can insert any number of cliches here about how they’ve grown, and how old I feel. It’s been fun, though, to watch them. That’s one of the perks of working in a small school–I can see them every day, if I make a point to be in the hallways between classes or after lunch. We have high school students who have transferred to our school, too, over the past seven years who have added to the mix of personalities. And to the dating pool. I bring up this last point  because that’s a Big Deal in the middle school and high school. When I taught these students, boys and girls played together and were friends. Now, it seems everything is viewed through the lens of dating and pairing up and sex. This is not just the perspective of the students, but also the staff. When you are teaching students who are preoccupied with who is dating whom and the tangled webs thereof, it’s important to pay attention and to be proactive and involved.

Here is my disclaimer: I am not in these classrooms. I don’t interact with these students much. And there is a lot I’m missing.

What I see is this (in the hallways, staff meetings, and handbook revisions every spring): Girls have been chastised for wearing tank tops; boys are not. Girls’ clothing is sexualized; boys’ is not. Girls try to take up less space; boys try to take up more.

Toxic body image affects girls and boys. Girls see one version of the ideal body, and learn to lose pounds and inches and to take up less space. Boys see one image of the ideal body, and learn to build certain muscle in certain places. Self-perception and self-worth often hinges on these limited definitions of acceptable physical femininity and masculinity. (I’ll expand these more in the future, and provide more nuance).

In my anti-diet support and resource group, we talk a lot about giving ourselves permission to Take Up Space. To wear tank tops, even if our arms are not toned. To wear the clothes we want before we reach our goal weight. To wear the clothes we want without allowing our body parts to be scrutinized or sexualized. Do you know why we have to consciously give ourselves permission to do this, at the age of 20, 30, or even 60?

Because this kind of body shaming and sexualization starts in high school. When we talk about the dress code, we talk about girls wearing tank tops, and the boys getting distracted. We talk about the girls not having enough “self-respect,” about the girls using their clothes to get attention, about it detracting from the learning environment. When we talk about the boys wearing tank tops… we don’t. We have not, in my recollection, talked about boys wearing tank tops. A former student wears tank tops and sleeveless muscle shirts almost daily. I have never seen nor heard him told to cover up or change shirts during the day. I have seen multiple girls forced to wear t-shirts or hoodies or zip-ups over tank tops that were deemed inappropriate.

It starts before high school, when I am expected to tell a second grade girl that she cannot wear a tank top on a 90ºF day because of the dress code. Second grade girls (generally) do not have bra straps or breasts, and they definitely do not have sexy shoulders. Second grade children do not think about their own bodies in that manner, unless the adults in their lives create environments where those aspects are amplified.

Are there adult men and women who find shoulders, breasts, cleavage, or clavicles attractive? Yes. Are there adult men and women who find well-defined biceps, triceps, and pectorals attractive? Yes. Do we objectify every adult human that walks past us in a tank top? I sure hope not. Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same?

Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same? I might raise a stink if the dress code comes up again. I might bring it up myself. Our girls should be allowed to take up space; they should not have to “hide” their bodies. The boys should not have free reign to take up as much space as they want by wearing shirts that reveal their entire torsos from a profile view, especially if we’re using the idea of “professionalism” as the rationale behind other pieces of the dress code. Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies had a pointed piece about reframing dresscodes as “Don’t Wear Saturday on a Wednesday.” It strikes a sensible balance between allowing girls to retain agency of their bodies and clothing, respecting boys’ ability to control themselves and treat girls as humans, and teaching students to dress for the situation and venue.

Happy Spring! I’ma go garden in a T-Shirt while it’s still cool enough to do so. Once it’s mid-June…sports bra. Lots of sunblock. Not because it’s sexy, but because it’s just too hot. Also I have six-foot fences, soooo..

**I have to credit my sister Katrina with the approach to this one. This was said in a very kind manner. I am not the Takes No Prisoners teacher with my kids.

When you rub an onion and an orange together, it doesn’t make the onion smell better, it just makes everything smell kinda gross. Trust me, you don’t smell good. I used to be a middle school girl, and the people around you would much prefer you to shower daily and wash your hair than to smell like a can from a commercial. This is your homework for the next two weeks: Shower every day, wash your hair, wear deodorant. There will be a test, and it will be the asthma of the para across the hall who cannot breathe after you spray that stuff in the boys’ bathroom.

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8 comments

  1. First off – everyone is sexualized. Guys are just vocal about it. Girls judge guys on how sexually attractive they are. That’s why they let a lot of harassers off the hook. I’ve seen girls stay friendly with hot guys despite harassing them (“Show me pictures! Come on, show me pictures!”) when they have plenty of people to go around with.

    I don’t think it has much to do with space. Developed muscles don’t necessarily lead to a huge body. Where I’m from, at least,a huge body is pretty much a death sentence in dating. If we wanted women to be smaller, why are big breasts and buttocks praised?

    Other than that, I agree with you regarding the hypocritical dress code. There’s no reason to limit what girls can wear and what boys don’t. It won’t make sexualiy vanish. In fact, by trying to hide sexuality you’re making it more apparent. That’s why lingerie and swimsuits are sexier than a naked body, by the way.

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    1. Everyone is sexualized, but in advertising and media, and in the media targeted at the demographic with whom I work, girls and women are sexualized disproportionately to men. In general, women are sexualized disproportionately to men.

      As far as harassment, you are mistaken. Harassment, by definition, exploits a power imbalance. Women do not let their harassers “off the hook” because women also view men sexually. Women choose not to engage their harassers for a number of reasons, including the fact that doing so can lead to increased harassment, verbal and physical threats, and physical violence.

      I use space both literally and figuratively. When I talk about taking up space, I may refer to physical space, as I did in my blog post. Women are conditioned to attack problem areas, to count calories, to lose weight and inches and to shoot for their goal weights, even when they are already at a healthy body weight. I’ve written about this before. “Space” also refers to the right to be seen and heard. In dress codes specifically, girls are disproportionately targeted with mandates to “cover up,” with implicit connections to their character based on their ability or willingness to comply. Curvy girls in particular are targeted because of the comparative tightness or “revealing” nature of their clothing, simply because they do not fit the narrow definition of an “acceptable” body.

      I am not advocating we hide sexuality. There are healthier manners in which to handle dress codes that don’t put all the blame and focus on girls’ developing and diverse bodies, and that teach all genders to see their peers as more than just sexual objects. As it stands, our dress codes fail on all counts.

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      1. I agree women are much more sexualized in the media than men. There are few male characters like Black Widow whose sole role is to be sexy.

        These girls do let them off the hook. I’m not speaking for everyone but for the specific people I see. If a person is being a jerk to you and you continue to being nice to him despite the fact you don’t have to, you let him off the hook. They keep talking to them, showing them affection and speaking positively of them.

        If it’s about taking up space, why is the hourglass figure the most popular? Why are big breasts and buttocks praised, when they take more space?

        I didn’t think you said we should hide sexuality. These were just my two cents on the topic. Forcing girls to cover up is even more sexualizing and brings to attention her looks than not covering up.

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      2. I tend to write about systems rather than specific people, unless that specific person is me. But referring to specific women you know who continue to be friendly with so-called “jerks” is dangerous territory and plays into oppressive systems, so… in my own experience, in an abusive or exploitative situation, it may be more safe to continue in the status quo than to terminate the interaction, until one has the resources or support to end it. This includes abusive friendships. Emotional manipulation and abuse (of which ongoing harassment can be a part) can be challenging to identify. That does not mean she is letting him off the hook. That is victim blaming. That is putting the responsibility for the abuse on the one being abused, and that is unacceptable. The responsibility for abuse is on the shoulders of the abuser, the harasser, the jerk.

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      3. The people make the system. There is no system without people. You cannot put individuals out of the equation.

        It’s not a matter of safety. This isn’t an abusive relationship with severe manipulation. This is a simple situation where rude behavior is being excused because the guy is attractive. What’s the point of writing about harassment and abuse if we keep running back to terrible people because we think their sexual attraction is enough?

        It’s the halo effect. The sexual attractiveness of a person makes everything he does seem less wrong. I have situations where a different girl reacts to the same guy in an aggressive way that shows dislike. This is how we should react to abusers, all of us.

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      4. We have deviated significantly from my original post on sexualization and dress codes.

        I have skimmed through a few of your blog posts, and was particularly struck by your piece on Manspreading. Your assertions what can or cannot be a feminist issue troubles me, even though I find some of your other writing something about which we could probably dialogue. As a man (presumably, I will accept correction if I am mistaken), you do not get to decide which issues faced by women are feminist issues. If you want to be a feminist ally, the first thing you need to learn to do is listen.

        You have repeatedly referred to adult women as girls in your comments. I find this disrespectful, and ask that you reconsider your word choices when you engage with others in the future.

        Finally, your insistence on hammering this issue, unrelated to my original post, has become an argument and not a discussion. I have already addressed the power dynamics at play in harassment and abuse situations. I am done. If you have other questions or points to make, back on the original point of the post (with which you found no fault), or suggestions for solving the issues with dress codes that I raise, I am interested in continuing that thread of conversation. Otherwise, stop.

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      5. I love discussions, so I easily get carried away with one point or the other. I understand if you want to stop.

        English is my second langauge so ‘girls’ have less connetations for me for ‘youth’. I used that word in an attempt to include all ages. I understand if it was misunderstood.

        I offered my definition of when something is a feminist issue or not. It needs to target women specifically. The dress code you’ve discussed is an example. Women are being targeted and discriminated against, while men get to enjoy privileges.

        The only solution to your problem is to enforce a dress code that doesn’t see sex. Either everyone dresses the same or everyone wear what they want. There is no need to draw lines between two collectives.

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