Disturbing Reality Behind School Dress Codes

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“That dress is too short,” my husband remarked when he saw my 16-year-old daughter modeling her selection for Homecoming. After marathon dress shopping to find something my daughter liked, I was not in the mood to put up with his remark. But I took his point.

There is a growing awareness in schools that dress codes unfairly stigmatize girls and go easy on boys. Across the country, girls and their parents have fought for the right to allow girls to wear tight leggings, spaghetti straps, and other clothes that have in the past been considered a distraction.

While I agree that it’s unfair to single out girls at school for their attire, the fact that there are so many styles for girls that could be labeled as too sexy or distracting points to an upsetting reality: In our society, females continue to be objectified and judged for their physical appearance in a way that males rarely are.

One might argue that the ubiquitous legging, which girls wear in a manner that reveals every curve of thigh and buttocks, is simply what’s in style for young women. Ditto for short skirts and other revealing clothing. But that fact begs the question: why? Why are styles for women so relentlessly geared toward sexualizing their bodies?

Men dress for comfort or success. Aside from the trend of wearing baggy pants that reveal a guy’s boxers, there are few styles for men that could be construed as too sexy or distracting. The boys at my daughter’s school wear baggy shorts and t-shirts or preppy polos and khaki shorts or “joggers.” As long as there is not an overtly violent message or a logo for a beer label on their person, boys are pretty safe from scrutiny at school.

Not so for girls, who want to look stylish and cute. They are not necessarily trying to come on to boys, but they also don’t want to dress like their mothers or grandmothers. So my daughter turns up at Homecoming in a tiny, short dress that reveals her incredibly long, muscular legs. Even I’m intimidated looking at her sometimes.

This is the dilemma girls and women face in our culture. Until we change our social norms and start to prize females more for who they are inside, we will continue to objectify their outer selves. And schools will continue to fight battles over what is appropriate dress in schools.

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Less Is More

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I talk too much. Whether it’s nervous chatter in an uncomfortable social situation or getting carried away by my own story-telling, I sometimes say too much. I’ll find myself oversharing personal information or saying silly things while trying to be clever, and I’ll end up feeling embarrassed or dissatisfied with the interaction. Or I’ll monopolize a conversation and then wonder if my friend thinks I’m too self-involved.

Nowhere is my tendency to say too much more apparent and ineffectual, though, than in my interactions with my children. From the time they were little, I got into the habit of giving them lengthy explanations for everything from how Santa gets around the world in one night to why they need to brush their teeth/go to bed/not hit their brother or sister.

Over the years, my kids’ reaction to all this talking (more like haranguing sometimes) has fallen into one of two camps: either escalating the battle of wills and shouting back or completely tuning me out, like the kids in the Charlie Brown cartoons who only hear “Wah wah wah” when their teacher speaks.

When it comes to speaking and writing, often less is more. One of our most revered American literary icons, for instance, was the terse Ernest Hemingway, whose prose could be likened to a spartan cell in an ancient monastery: no frills. And who among us has not sometimes wished our pastor would share some short kernel of spiritual wisdom instead of droning on and on and repeating himself?

For my part, I am practicing the art of saying less but communicating more.

Enough said.

One Day At a Time

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IMG_1399I recently discovered that a friend’s health problems are considerably more grave than we had realized. Upon receiving the bad news, my mind immediately sprang ahead to all the difficulties, logistics, and future issues that might arise for her and for me as I tried to help her through the crisis. A mutual friend, however, said something to me that put the brakes on my fear and anxiety. She said, “I take life one day at a time. It’s all I can do.”

Breathe. “One day at a time” is, of course, the mantra of 12 step programs that aim to help people recovering from addiction. Sometimes the vista ahead is too huge and too scary. Better to keep our focus on our feet as they proceed through this one day.

Thinking about what needs to be done today and shelving most future worries is very helpful to remaining calm and focusing on the task at hand. Whether it’s a health issue, an emotional crisis, a financial complication, or simply an unforeseen wrench in our plans, taking things one step at a time can be a reassuring way of moving forward.

At the end of my stressful day, I decided to take a walk and clear my head. The grammar school around the corner from my house has a butterfly garden that was grown and is tended by the young students and faculty at the school. There was a light breeze blowing through the tall flowers and grasses as I walked the stepping stone path. No butterflies flitted through the garden, but here and there I saw fat bumblebees getting the most out of the flowers they hovered over.

Along the path I saw a sign that said “Common Milkweed.” I had read that monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive but had never seen the actual plant before. Or if I had, I did not know what to call it. Milkweed feeds monarch caterpillars and provides the right environment for monarchs to lay their eggs. I pictured the local school children cultivating the soil and gently planting the seeds for the milkweed. I saw them watering the garden under the watchful eyes of their teacher. I felt certain that while they worked in the garden, these children simply focused on the task at hand, which was to plant something that would nurture monarch butterflies.

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I will try to keep this mantra in my head and heart: “one day at a time.” I will try to keep hope alive for my friend and myself. I will take a stroll through the milkweed and just breathe.

Lake Time

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IMG_7684.JPGThis weekend finds me and my family (well, the three of us still at home) relaxing at the lake. Not the Great Lake Michigan but one of its smaller cousins that dot the landscape of western Michigan. It’s the last hurrah of summer, and it feels right to be in a place that lends itself to lazy days and grilling burgers and reading good books (for me, Anthony  Doerr’s exquisite About Grace).

Yesterday I stood at the water’s edge and let the sound of water gently lapping at the rocks lull me into a sense of peace. The sunlight glittered across the lake, and the occasional speedboat made loops in the water, pulling a skier or tuber or even a wakeboarder, who balanced with seeming ease in the waves being churned up by the boat in front.

The lake has a certain smell: slightly fishy and peaty. Dampness seeps into the screened-in porch, where I usually curl up with my book and a glass of wine. The breeze rustles the pages of the book and ruffles my hair. Even doing nothing, I work up an appetite and hungrily chow down a delicious burger cooked by my husband, the grill master.

Boats and water and sand are not my favorite things. I’m too afraid of accidents and drowning to enjoy water sports much. But the lake itself, from a safe distance, is mesmerizing. At sunset, I love nothing more than to sit on the dock and watch the sky turn pink and purple over the water.

The lake is mysterious. Even a small one is host to innumerable slimy plants and fish. When I was young, I loved catching minnows in a bucket or feeling them brush my ankles in the water. I would scare myself by holding my nose and plunging under, eyes wide open, staring into mostly black nothingness. At night, I’d dream of gliding under water searching for something, but never finding it.

It’s easy to imagine that the outside world does not exist when I am here at the lake. I plan to enjoy that illusion for as long as I can before real life draws me back into the hurly-burly.

I’m Disappointed

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I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton recently came out of virtual seclusion to hawk her book rather than to lead the resistance against the Trump Administration.

I’m disappointed that President Trump treated an appearance at the site of massive flooding in Texas as another campaign rally: “Look at the crowd; look at the turnout.”

I’m disappointed that petty Americans are spending their time criticizing Melania’s choice of footwear.

I’m disappointed that Berkley antifascist groups used violence to counter a white supremacist march.

I’m disappointed that deniers refuse to concede that climate change might possibly have something to do with the heaviest amount of rainfall ever to fall on the 48 contiguous states.

I’m disappointed that even a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey can’t seem to bring our country together.

Life is just full of disappointments. And yet . . .

Online and on TV, I am seeing first responders and volunteers helping residents of Texas escape the floodwaters. Everywhere from furniture stores to churches are opening their doors to shelter the displaced. In my home town, residents are making plans to collect needed supplies and drive them down to the Houston area. Donations are pouring into relief agencies.

The innate goodness in people seems to be taking over. I am going to choose to ignore the hate and snark and acrimony that is ever present on the internet these days, find out how best to help others, and go do something.

 

Totality

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My experience of the solar eclipse yesterday was underwhelming. With extensive cloud cover over Chicago and a lack of specialty eclipse-viewing glasses, my attempts to spy the moon’s shadow over the sun were mostly in vain. My husband adorably made me a pinhole viewer out of an old Frosted Flakes box, yet all I could really see was a white hazy glow.

Still, yesterday’s event – the first time a total solar eclipse has traversed the continental United States since 1918 – was exciting. For one day, citizens across our vast country were united in enthusiasm and eagerness for the same thing. Political and social strife aside, we collectively looked to the heavens and marveled at the mysteries of the universe.

My husband and I watched the coverage on Fox News and found Shephard Smith to be like a little kid running around the newsroom and forcing his colleagues to keep shouting out “total solar eclipse” at random moments. Interviews with eclipse watchers at various locations where totality would occur found people in festive moods. Everyone from the president and his family on the White House balcony to young school children to Americans of all stripes camping out in Oregon or Carbondale, Illinois, or South Carolina were there to witness the same phenomenon: the moments when the moon was positioned perfectly in front of the sun, blocking out most of the light, dropping the temperature, and revealing stars and planets. Even the International Space Station managed to “photo bomb” the sun as it traveled in space.

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I had read a description of totality by a New York Times Magazine writer, which described the moment as otherworldly. The writer described people crying or shouting and hugging each other after the moments passed and the sun’s light returned. Eclipse chasers go to great distances and a lot of trouble to secure a spot in the path of totality. Here in Illinois, there was gridlock on I-57 as people made their way down to Carbondale, the city that experienced the longest period of totality during yesterday’s eclipse.

I find it comforting that scientists could pinpoint the exact time and location of the total solar eclipse down to the minute. It tells me that we exist in an orderly universe with some predictability. I also find it reassuring that all of us still find wonder and awe in our natural world. A Facebook meme I saw today joked that children everywhere went outside for the first time. My daughter’s entire high school congregated on the football field wearing their ultra-hip safety glasses and looked up to the sky for a change rather than down at their smart phones.

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Mostly, I felt lucky to be alive. I felt happy to be thinking of something other than my own cares and worries, as well as the controversies of our current times. Totality reminds me that we Americans – indeed we human beings – are all in this together. I hope that reminder seeps into our decision-making and our public discourse, admonishing us that “united we stand; divided we fall.”

Class Act

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I just finished the hilarious Kevin Kwan trilogy that began with Crazy Rich Asians and ended with Rich People Problems. In the satirical series, all kinds of filthy rich people jockey for social standing and look down their noses at others who might have billions but lack class.

There are the old money Singaporeans who disdain vulgar displays of wealth such as gaudy jewels, Rolls Royces, or opulent ball gowns. This old guard is considered the creme de la creme of society. Then there are the nouveau riche billionaires from mainland China, some of whom don’t care at all what others think of them while others spend billions of dollars searching for acceptance into the upper stratosphere.

Class consciousness has been part of all societies for millennia, even the so-called egalitarian country in which I reside, the United States. Having money is part of that equation, but how one acts in public, one’s manners, and one’s taste in everything from fashion to art to wine often determine one’s social standing.

The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy humorously skewers social climbers whose atrocious behavior belies their desire to be thought well of in society. Their religious and philanthropic activities are not genuine but come from an effort to position themselves among the “right” sorts of people. Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed the comeuppance many of these phony strivers receive by the end of Rich People Problems.

In his novels, though, Kwan shows that real class has no socio-economic boundaries. His main characters, Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, are level-headed, intelligent, warm, and caring people whose views of others and themselves stem not from how much money or possessions someone has, but from how that person treats others. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, has never known great wealth, yet she is rich in family and relationships that sustain her. Nick, born into the utmost wealth and privilege, is mystified when his family turns up their nose at his “common” girlfriend, Rachel. To Nick, Rachel has far more class than most of his well-bred, English-educated family will ever have.

Like other great satires, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels expose the hypocrisy behind people’s efforts to think of themselves as better than others. He proves that true class cannot be bought or bred into us, but that it comes from an intelligent and open-hearted effort to view individuals according to their innermost merits, not their stock portfolio or the family into which they were born.