I spy…Skirting the issue

In Metro, January, 5, 2017

“An individual woman who appears as the spokeswoman for the freedom of all women is a pathetic and isolated creature. . . . She presents no threat. An individual “emancipated” woman is an amusing incongruity, a titillating commodity, easily consumed.” —Sheila Rowbotham

As I mentioned in a previous post, women, especially those in the public sphere are discussed in terms of for their appearance and clothing, while their work is discussed secondarily. It is a normative discourse, to talk about how women dress, from schoolgirls to celebrities on the red carpet: Kate Middleton, supposedly a public figure of charitable work, is constantly reported on her latest outfits. This marginalizes women’s work to such a degree that this, arguably, is the only message young girls receive: if you want to be noticed, this is the way to go.

The issue of dress arises as a policy issue when UK citizens challenge dress codes that have been imposed by employers or schools: The Ebbsfleet Academy is reported to have sent 20 teenage girls home for wearing skirts that were deemed too short. The headteacher criticized parents for allowing their daughters to ‘flash large amounts of thigh’. This language immediately reminds us of the discourse of meat – the noun phrase large amount of thigh echoes ‘large amount of meat.’ Female teenagers are objectified as though the revealing of their body is somehow improper. Additionally, the choice of the skirt as school uniform in itself is unequal. Some schools give girls (and presumably boys?) a choice between pants and skirts and I am not aware if this is the case at Ebbsfleet.

The burkini ban in France is another example of imposing women’s dress code. Andrew Mitchell (2017) says that French politicians champion the view that in a secular society women have the freedom of expression and should not therefore have to cover up their bodies because of the requirement of a patriarchal religion. Mitchell further notes that in the UK, that ‘prides itself on the diversity and multiculturalism of its population, there is less of a desire to interfere with the rights of citizens in the way they dress’. Considering women were allowed to vote for the first time only 99 years ago, it could be said that the road to equality is a long way off. Kate Millet (in Adams, 1990, p.242) remarked that “every avenue of power” is male dominated. In a patriarchal society, something both the UK and France share, all women are subjected to the scrutiny and judgement of their dress.Because what is the notion of appropriacy if not a set of societal norms? One could argue that the institutional context of the school dictates a certain dress code that is different, for example to the beach. However, since the public and institutional spheres are male-dominated, they dictate the rules – what is or isn’t appropriate, as for example in law firms. Make no mistake, however. Women can also be women’s not-so-best-friends. Because of women’s status in society, one of the way in which they can gain relative higher regard is by enforcing male-set rules.

Whether women are told what to wear or what not, the result is that they form a group that is defined by its appearance and is subjected to continuous criticism, something boys and men are not. Even in the reporting in Metro from January, 9th, the queen is said to be ‘sporting a blue hat’ while her husband is not.

Taking into account the above, it isn’t surprising that girls choose to display their sexual identity in this way.



Adams, C.J. (1990) The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. 10th edn. Oxford, Eng.: Polity Press.
Mitchell, A. (2017) ‘Balancing conflicting interests: Dress code and the law’, Law Review, 12(2), pp. 10–12.
The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

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