In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, writes, “There are still countries that deny women basic civil rights. Worldwide, about 4.4 million women and girls are trapped in the sex trade. In places like Afghanistan and Sudan, girls receive little or no education, wives are treated as property of their husbands, and women who are raped are routinely cast out of their homes for disgracing their families. Some rape victims are even sent to jail for committing a ‘moral crime.’ We are centuries ahead of the unacceptable treatment of women in these countries. But knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better.”
Though the education we have received at Millennium has been excellent, and though we are incredibly grateful to have the chance to learn in such an open and engaging environment, there are aspects of Millennium, especially its treatment of female students, which must change. In recent months, we have witnessed countless peers being shamed, humiliated, and embarrassed for the way they dress. Personally, we have been victims of this as well.
Teachers have cited the idea that a woman’s dress is “distracting” to peers, often solely male peers, many times. The first problem with this is that it is heteronormative. Not everyone at Millennium has the same sexual orientation. The administration should respect this.
The second problem is that this places total blame on the wearer of the clothing and no blame on the person actually being distracted. When we get dressed in the morning, we should not be expected to ask ourselves, “Could I turn someone on by wearing this?” The idea of this disgusts me. It is unfair to assume that the length of a girl’s dress is the source of these so called “distractions.” It is even more unfair to assume that the dress should be changed because of it. 28% of girls in college are sexually assaulted. Only 5% report the crime. Perhaps, this tragic disparity comes from the fact that these victims feel as though they deserved what they got. We are all well aware that this could not be farther from the truth, and yet Millennium’s administration portrays similar ideas.
The third issue with referring to dress as “distracting” is that it avoids a major issue. Perhaps, we should be talking to our female students about how to be powerful, successful and confident females in the face of a culture that often values physical attributes over knowledge. The broader problem is that there can be real-life benefits to wearing revealing clothing. Instead of ignoring this problem, let’s talk about it.
If we may, we’d like to share some personal examples of being publicly shamed for our dress by Millennium teachers. Once, I was told that boys would think I was dumb for dressing “the way I did.” Somehow, this was my fault. Another time, I overheard a teacher making a comment about a peer’s body type and how it influenced what clothing she had to wear. Somehow, this was her fault. I have seen peers sent home from school, forced to miss valuable instruction time, for a pair of shorts that were no shorter than my own. Somehow, this was her fault. These comments are made loudly, publicly and with very little respect. And yet, we have seen boys ogle, touch, and harass female students without consequence. Is this also the fault of the victims?
Let us be clear, we fully understand the need for a dress code and we are not advocating for a mere amendment. It’s not about wanting to wear spaghetti straps and mini-skirts. It’s about the emotional health and communal strength of the student body, both male and female. School is a place for learning and it should be treated that way. We are, however, arguing that there be a visible change in the way the dress code is approached and enforced. Shaming female students is not the way to do so. Perhaps, we should have broader conversations. Conversations about consent, safety, gender roles, rape culture, respect and honesty. Perhaps, you should have these same conversations with your administration. A harmful culture has taken root in Millennium. We encourage you to address it before your actions have broader consequences and take further tolls on the emotional health of the student body.
We are very lucky to have the rights we do. We are thankful for our educations, especially because it has taught us how to dream of a better future. This letter is the first part of that dream.
We only hope that our words do not fall on deaf ears.
Best wishes and thank you for your time,
Julie Ugoretz and Sabina Young