By Lexie Kite, PhD and Lindsay Kite, PhD
Church Prom Dress Code
Boys: Tie and button shirt required. No low-rider pants.
Girls: Sleeves should cover the shoulder and top of the arm. No cleavage showing. No bras or bra straps showing through sheer fabrics. No low necklines in the front or back. No open, sheer, bare lace-ups in front or back. No midriff showing with arms raised while dancing. No tight or revealing clothes of any kind. No sheer, lacey or see-through fabric in areas that should otherwise be covered. Shoulders included. Hems should be no shorter than … (and so, so much more).
Our hearts broke when we saw a flyer for a church prom with these instructions this week.We understand the desire to clearly and strictly enforce a dress code for young women who are slammed with messages telling them their value lies in their sexual appeal above all else. But dress codes like this one don’t help that cause, and might inadvertently do more harm than good. Here’s why: They inadvertently sexualize young women as a collection of inappropriate body parts, positioning them as threats to be mitigated at any cost.
Our hearts especially break when we see dress codes like this from churches and schools and organizations that truly care about girls, because they are echoing and reinforcing what our culture constantly tells girls about themselves: they exist to be looked at. They are bodies first and people second. Their bodies are sexualized threats and burdens, not gifts and instruments for their own use and experience. Churches and schools, of all institutions, should be pushing a different message from “the world” about bodies and worth. Our culture tells girls, “Your body defines you.” We should be telling girls, “You are more than a body.” We should see more than bodies in our girls and encourage them to be more by teaching them how to understand and seek their value outside of their appearance and sexual appeal. That shouldn’t be too hard. Lots of churches preach some pretty great things about the worth of souls and the source of that great love and power to help individuals.
The people who wrote the dress code above, and the people who write every dress code just like this one are well-meaning, loving, and good people. We want to help people channel those good intentions into more effective means of communicating about dress codes and modesty*. Lengthy, over-the-top, ultra-specific dress codes for girls only are based in fear and anxiety about sex — especially about male sexuality and the feelings female bodies are sure to incite, not to mention the fears of the actions that will surely be provoked by those males in response to those sights. But dress codes like these don’t prevent girls from being perceived as sexual objects, they actually reinforce it. Let’s repeat that:
Dress codes like these don’t prevent girls from being perceived as sexual objects.
They reinforce it.
They take the focus off of girls as people and hyper-focus it on each of their parts that are in need of covering, thus sexualizing those parts or positioning them as inappropriate. Shoulders, knees, backs, stomachs, legs above the knee, underarms, etc., are not inherently sexy or sexual. Boys learn right alongside girls that those particular female parts are inappropriate and are, thus, sexually charged.
Dress codes are often necessary and helpful to ensure everyone is on the same page about what to wear, but they can be written from a place of love, understanding and respect, rather than from a place of fear. They can be written in such a way that doesn’t unnecessarily deconstruct girls into collections of body parts to be covered. They can reinforce personal accountability for everyone’s appropriate dress, guided by uniform instructions and — in the case of churches — the understanding that our bodies are sacred and our sexual appeal does not determine our worth. If you’re willing to be clear and thorough enough to inventory all possible dress code violations for girls, why not just be up front and clear about the fact that you’re concerned about attendees choosing attire that highlights their sex appeal too much for the setting. Instead of saying “don’t show this, this, and this,” why not just come right out and say, “We all know what our church’s dress standards are. If you don’t, let’s talk*! Please do your best to find a dress or other outfit that fits those standards. We want you to be able to focus on dancing, talking to others, and having fun — not worrying about your dress or your body.”
That whole “not worrying about your dress or your body thing” is absolutely crucial. That process of monitoring your body, thinking about what you look like to others all the time, is called self-objectification, and it was the focus of a big part of our doctoral research. Most girls and women live in a state of self-objectification because of our culture that objectifies women’s bodies. We live, and we picture ourselves living. It’s that pesky, never-ending mental task list Lindsay describes in her TEDx talk. When we have to accomplish a task while also thinking about what we look like while doing it, we’re at a major disadvantage. In a state of self-consciousness about our bodies, we perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, and have lower sexual assertiveness (including the ability to say “no” when needed and discuss contraception). Self-objectification leads to an increase in disordered eating and cosmetic surgery procedures, low participation in leadership positions, keeps girls from raising their hands in class, and leads them to quit pursuits of math and science at greater rates.
Even though we are critical of lots of dress codes, that doesn’t mean we think standards of modesty or any focus on clothing is bad. In fact, there is power in clothing to alleviate self-objectification. If you feel fixated on your appearance, your clothing could be part of the problem. Are you constantly pulling shirts and skirts down, yanking necklines up, adjusting things, or trying to cover certain areas while hoping to expose others? Studies on self-objectification show us that body-baring and tight clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood. What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that is especially revealing or emphasizing our bodies, we become very self-aware of those parts that are most visible and potentially being looked at. We self-objectify.
Research shows a level of modesty (that may vary from person to person since modesty and comfort in clothing are subjective) can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves from being in a constant state of self-objectification. Teach your girls about self-objectification. Talk to them about how being fixated on your clothes and your appearance gets in the way of everything they could be doing and experiencing.
What if we prioritized how girls and women feel in their own bodies and clothing, rather than how they think they look?
What if we taught girls to be conscious and critical of the ways we’ve been taught to view and value ourselves as objects to be looked at, and to fight to see more and be more?
What if we helped girls and women consciously consider the ways their clothing affects their self-perceptions and self-consciousness rather than the way others might or might not perceive them?
What if we spoke from research and truth that empowers girls and women and encourages respect for our bodies, instead of speaking from a place of fear and anxiety that reinforces the lie that girls are sexual beings first and human beings second?
We owe it to our girls to try.
*For LDS audiences, we have a modesty lesson plan here. It’s specifically tailored for LDS Young Women due to significant demand, but it would work for lots of Christian churches if you’re interested.
Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.
Lexie Kite, Ph.D. and Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. are the co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience.
Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.