The Danger of “Dress Like You Deserve Respect”

When a Hill staffer told Malia and Sasha Obama to “dress like you deserve respect not a spot at the bar” the reaction was pretty much as I expected: outrage combined with some discussion about their length of their skirts: variations of “their skirts are a little short, but that was out of line,” and “they are teenagers who are years from being able to drink.”

What I didn’t see was anyone saying “actually, they deserve respect no matter what they wear or what faces they make (or don’t make) because they are people.”

And, while we are are at it, a bar vs. respect should not be an either or proposition. Women getting dressed for a night out, regardless of their skirt length deserve respect. As do women dressed for any other occasion.

This “dress like you deserve respect” message seems like the other side of the “she was asking for it” coin. We need to teach both our girls and boys that clothes do not make the person, and all people deserve to be treated as human and with dignity. No one was asking for it. Everyone has humanity.

Stories about college rape, about police brutality*, about black boys in hoodies, and about first daughters in skirts show us how far we are from internalizing that lesson.

* separate post on this to come

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#YesAllWomen

In college, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom in East Harlem, teaching conflict resolution. We did a “stand up/sit down” ice breaker: We sat in a circle and someone stood in the middle and said something about himself or herself. Anyone who agreed or had the same experience stood up.

The students were blown away that their teacher listened to rap, that other kids had parents who were divorced, or were afraid that their siblings would join gangs.

The conversation that I remember most visibly was this one:

Me: Was there anything that surprised you?

Child One: I was surprised that the adults (the female teacher and the three female volunteers) stood up when someone said “I’m afraid to walk alone at night.” Because you are ADULTS and we are supposed to walk with ADULTS to be safe. If the adults don’t feel safe, how are we safe?

Me: Well, there is safety in number–

Child Two: It’s because of RAPE.

Child Three: Don’t SAY that.

They then went on to discuss everything else they were afraid of or things that had made them afraid (ghosts, spirits as completely distinct from ghosts, a brother getting killed, seeing someone kill himself). These weren’t kids who were isolated from legitimately frightening things, and now, hopefully, all of those kids are teenagers. I’m not sorry we were honest with them, but I’m sad we had to be.