It's worth talking about strapless dresses

It seems that everyone has an opinion on what girls should wear.

This week a middle school principal in the US tried to stop teenage girls wearing strapless dresses* to the annual eighth grade dance, following a dress code policy decision by the local school board. When asked why such a ban was required, the principal reportedly said that it was because strapless dresses would be a distraction to the local boys.

Would you like to know what I wore as a teenager?

Each and every time I walked outside in public in the country where we lived I covered my legs, right down to my ankles. If I wasn't already wearing local attire, baggy pants and a long top, I made sure that the shirt I was wearing was long enough to cover my bottom, up to halfway down my thighs. My tops were never close fitting. I never went out without sleeves. A singlet top would have been scandalous. My sleeves were always at most a couple of inches from the elbow.

And cleavage? Uh uh. Noooo way.

As well as all of that, I swathed myself in a chador, a nearly-bedsheet-sized light cotton cloth which I wrapped right around myself. I looked like a pillow case with legs. And that's if my head was uncovered, which was okay in the town closest to our boarding school.

It was different at 'home', in the tiny desert-edge village where my parents were working. There I had to cover my head as well. Let's just say that there's definitely a reason not too many women wash their hair every day in that area of the world. Cotton clings much more effectively to sticky hair.

When I was out in public, I walked quietly, not attracting attention. Often I put my head down so as to blend in even more. I flaunted absolutely nothing.

Now that you've got a nice visual of my 'look' you might be wondering this: was Cecily a distraction to the local boys?

Why yes, yes I was.

As an eleven year old, wearing all of the above, my bottom was pinched in a public market place. As a 13 year old while I was talking with a friend not 200 metres from my house, a man I had never seen before came right up to me and stroked my face. As a fifteen year old I was verbally abused and vilely propositioned by four young men while I sat on a rock in a popular holiday place, waiting for my family to catch up. They were about 300 metres away. 

I cannot tell you the number of times I was cat-called, photographed, leered at or made kissy-kissy faces. All of those events meld in to one. They are uncountable. A different something-or-other happened every single time I went out on a public street. It was a part of life I just had to manage. We all just had to manage it.

Because where we lived, women who went out in public deserved what they got. 

Just by the simple fact of being present - just by the very fact that I existed - even while rugged up like a walking shopping bag, I was obvious sexual temptation to the many men who had grown up believing that they had no control over their lust and it was up to women like me to stay out of the way and keep myself from being an object.

I don't know how many times it needs to be said: in the end, it really doesn't matter what a girl wears. If boys get 'distracted' when a quiet, unflaunting girl like me dresses ankle to neck to wrist to head covering, banning strapless dresses isn't going to solve the 'problem'.

The thirteen year old girl who spoke up at the school meeting about the strapless dress ban said the most sensible thing I've heard yet. Of her male classmates she said: "They get distracted by everything."

Here's an idea: instead of teaching girls that they're responsible for the reaction of boys to their existence and making ridiculous, arbitrary rules about what they should and shouldn't wear, why not teach boys to be respectful, gentle and polite? Why not teach boys to treat girls like people? Why not teach boys that they are responsible for their own feelings and that they aren't victims to their own desires?


By the way, tomorrow I'll be posting on 'Helping my daughter decide what to wear'. Because I've got a 13 year old daughter and all of this is not just theoretical or historical for me.


*Personally there's no way I would wear a strapless dress, being entirely the wrong sort of size to carry it off, besides which I often think girls look uncomfortable and a bit self-conscious wearing them, but those are entirely different considerations and I would defend anyone's right to wear one if she so chose.