Who do you want to impress with what you wear?
Watching the latest news involving New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, the country has been introduced to another young, beautiful woman who appears to be using her body instead of her brains to get ahead—what a shame.
The trend of young women using their sexuality to attract attention isn’t new. In my first year as principal at a west suburban high school, I was told that during our Homecoming assembly, the captains of each fall sport would speak about their teams, highlighting successes and inviting students to attend their games or tournaments. In a school with a very strong athletic program, I looked forward to hearing about the teams. The volleyball captain was the first female speaker, and she stepped to the microphone dressed in the team warm-up suit. She recited the team’s record, then moved on to her appeal for students to attend their matches: “Come to our games,” she said, “and you’ll get to see this!” She then tore off her sweats to reveal her team uniform, with shorts nicknamed “bun-huggers” that barely covered her behind. The boys went wild—I was appalled. To my complete chagrin, each girl’s team captain used a similar tactic, appearing in as little clothing as possible and culminating with the entire girls’ swim team pulling off sweatshirts and pants to reveal skimpy bikinis.
As I watched the scene unfold, I moved from embarrassment to anger to concern. Did the girls understand that despite the wild applause and laughter from the boys, they were causing the entire audience to focus on one aspect of their identity—their sexual attractiveness—at the expense of their standing as strong, smart, skilled athletes?
At the same time, I worried about approaching these girls who might see me as an incredibly out-of-date, irrelevant remnant of the “women’s liberation” movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Despite being from that generation, I don’t believe that women have to dress like men to be taken seriously, or that femininity should be suppressed. But I do believe that how women dress conveys a message—often unintended and always important.
In the 16 years since the day of that pep assembly, this trend has not let up. I see high-school girls frequently wear outfits to school that feature short-shorts or skin-tight pants. And now? The lack of self-respect for personal appearance, with little or no positive reinforcement from peers, parents or role models, has created a generation of young women who don’t know how to dress for the workplace. I see young women applicants wearing incredibly low tops or short skirts to interviews.
Mary Pipher, in her award-winning book about teenage girls, “Reviving Ophelia,” discusses the extraordinary difficulty of today’s women developing a healthy female sexual identity: “We raise our daughters to value themselves as whole people, and the media reduces them to bodies.”
Back at my previous school, the female assistant principal and I had a great conversation with the girls’ team captains the week after Homecoming. They seemed to understand our message, and they responded to our urging them to be proud of their strength, courage and skill as athletes.
At schools today, we can add to the dress code or change the rules, but personal conversations with young women are more effective and thought-provoking than rules or lectures. At school and at home, we can help neutralize our society’s glorification of thinness and minimize the emphasis on women’s sexuality at the expense of their intelligence and leadership skill. We can be feminine and attractive without masking our talents and strengths. What we wear is an important part of communicating our self-respect and self-worth.