When I left high school, I thought I would no longer have to worry about whether my skirt was “too short,” or – God forbid – if my shoulders were visible. I believed that becoming an adult would come with the freedom of choosing what to wear, but I’ve since realized I was wrong. Dress codes are still forced on adult women, and the general public obsesses over what they are wearing – even when they’re in public office.
The Missouri state legislature imposed a stricter dress code on its female lawmakers last month, requiring them to wear a blazer, jacket or cardigan to cover their arms and shoulders. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the blatant sexism and discrimination etched into the new policy. We should be focused on how lawmakers and elected officials of all genders are doing their jobs rather than what the women are wearing.
Missouri state Rep. and Republican Anne Kelley took time out of a meeting last month to introduce legislation outlining the dress code suggesting that women must cover their arms under the guise of “encouraging professionalism.” But a woman’s outfit will not suddenly become significantly more “professional” by covering her arms – it will only undermine her individuality and signal to the public that a woman’s outfit determines her worth and respect, excusing sexism at the government level.
When I was in high school, fashion was a form of self-expression that made me feel confident. One day, I wore a button-up shirt with a leather blazer, heeled boots and a plaid skirt. But my confidence was crushed when administrators called my outfit inappropriate because my skirt had a slit that was half an inch long. They gave me detention and told me to wear leggings under the skirt. This punishment made me late to class, and it was clear my school viewed my clothes as more important than my education. Despite the fact that I was dressed more professionally than most of my classmates, my entire outfit was deemed inappropriate all because of half an inch of fabric, much like female lawmakers in Missouri, who were apparently not dressing “professionally” without a jacket or blazer to accompany their dresses.
But scrutinizing female politicians for what they wear does not stop at the state level. At last week’s State of the Union address, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, heckled President Biden, yelling “Liar!” from her seat. But despite her egregious actions, people took to social media to mock her for her white coat, comparing her to Cruella de Vil. People should be more interested in the ruckus Greene caused at the State of the Union – which showcased deeper division and polarization within our federal government – instead of gawking at what she was wearing. Reducing women in politics to their looks on both sides of the aisle minimizes their voice, detaching their power and potential from the real issues at play.
Yet even if a woman dresses “professionally” and does not wear anything that might draw attention to them, they will still be under scrutiny. In a now-deleted tweet, Washington Examiner writer Eddie Scarry called out Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, saying “…that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Women in politics are even criticized for daring to look professional if they grew up in the working class. It reminds me of how I received the same treatment when my peers were surprised to find out I came from a low-income background simply because I dressed nicely when I went to school.
The obsession with what women are wearing permeates all aspects of society, but it is especially disheartening to see in politics. There should be a higher level of respect for the lawmakers of our country. Our elected officials aren’t celebrities walking the red carpet at the Grammys – they are deciding the laws which govern our society. When elite professionals seek to impose public dress code restrictions against women, it sends a message to the country that women’s clothing takes a priority over their actions and voice. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches the young girls watching at home to abandon their individuality if they want respect.
I tried to leave behind the dress codes, fashion-related criticism and appearance-based assumptions in my small hometown when I graduated high school. The fact that they actually exist everywhere – even in government – is a hard pill to swallow. The parallels between my own experiences and the experiences of women in politics are especially painful. The female leaders and lawmakers of our country deserve respect simply for the position, power and influence they hold, but a fashion choice can take away from their actions and be used to make assumptions and draw conclusions about them.
For me, fashion is as essential as breathing. Restricting my freedom of self-expression is like taking away what makes me, me. Fashion gives me confidence and helps me feel comfortable in my own skin. To me, it’s not just about fashion, but the very essence of my being. If we keep scrutinizing women for their fashion, why would they ever want to be themselves?
Women, female lawmakers included, should be able to wear what they want and not fear losing society’s respect. The issues that female politicians face are issues that women everywhere are facing, and if these discriminatory actions continue to be excused at the national level, it will be impossible for change to occur. How will high schools ever abandon sexist dress codes when they are only getting stricter in state government? We as a society must give agency to women rather than directly and indirectly policing what they wear.
Andrea Mendoza-Melchor, a freshman majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.
This article appeared in the February 16, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.