How Dress Codes Hurt My Self-Esteem

An essay about owning your body.

Growing up in a strict religion, I was surrounded by rules and regulations supposedly set up to ‘protect’ me from the big bad world. Dress codes were one of the paramount codes of conduct, and something that I reluctantly followed for 18 years. But all of this time, I didn’t feel protected - not from the world and not from myself.
Dress codes in religion are in place for both men and women, but as is ever the case, they tend to be much stricter and harsher for the ladies. When you whittle away the reasons for these regulations, it always comes down to one thing - the male gaze. Converse to its usual connotations, dress codes don't attempt to attract the male gaze through overt sexualisation; instead, their aim is to divert the male gaze from girls, through modesty, and thus to inhibit sinful sexual urges. The concept is highly contradictory to say the least - by dressing modestly in order to stave away sexual urges, you are still ultimately sexualising yourself by acknowledging that as a female, you are inherently distracting and seductive to onlooking men. And it is this belief - that if guys can see above a girl’s ankle or knee, that he will lose all self-control, and together they will be lost to temptation - that encourages rape culture and misogyny like little else.

" You are taught to see yourself as a piece of meat and to only ever consider your body in the context of the male gaze. "

 While I still attended church, modesty was one of the things that I hated the most about it. Not because I’m a sheep or shallow, but because of how it made young girls see themselves through the eyes of men. I didn’t hate my thighs because they wobbled, but because I saw them as slutty. I had major body insecurities because I was taught for 18 years that I was a slut if I showed anything, and that if something were to happen to me while dressed immodestly, it would basically be my fault. My midriff, shoulders, knees, and back were apparently invitations for sexual assault.
I stopped going to church when I moved to university two years ago and without a doubt, owning up to the way that I view myself has been one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. Whenever I would wear shorter skirts, I would constantly be wondering if people could see my butt (news flash: they couldn’t!) and would perennially feel as though I were being gawped at by every man who passed me by (news flash: I wasn’t!) I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin because I was taught that my skin was sinful. In the back of my head, I can hear people at church saying, “if you don’t feel comfortable dressing like that, than you obviously know it is wrong,” when in reality, any feeling of wrongness is because of how they taught me to hate my body, and to see myself as merely an object of temptation for horny guys.
This self-hate and shame means that I was never protected from myself and I was never protected from the world because quite frankly, clothes can’t do that. I shouldn’t have to feel responsible for controlling male urges. Guys have brains, and with brains come the capacity to control their own feelings, thoughts, and sexual appetites – covering up my shoulder doesn’t suddenly turn someone asexual.

I’m finally at a place in my life where I love my body. Even though I am constantly being told that I am projecting a bad image of myself to the world (a.k.a. men), or that I am a poor example, I know that I’m not. No girl is a slut because of the way she dresses, in fact, no girl is a slut - period. As a deep lover of fashion and style, the thought of it being turned against people as a weapon for slut shaming is beyond me.
From my experiences growing up, I can say, hand on my heart, that religious (and school) dress codes are incredibly damaging to young girls and the way that they see themselves. You are taught to see yourself as a piece of meat and to only ever consider your body in the context of the male gaze. Girls need to be taught to love themselves and to see their bodies as something beautiful instead of something to be hidden away. I used to hide, and I’m often still told to, but to that I say no more and I encourage all girls struggling with dress codes to do the same. We have the freedom to dress however we want.


Read more: Gendered beauty standards suck, which is we're all for eliminating the binaries that make people feel insecure.  Feminist fashion is a movement gaining rapid popularity, but not without a few catches of its own.

Couturesque's Fashion Features Editor Xenia Klein is a blogger, writer, and fashion student from London.  You can follow her day-to-day adventures and OOTDs on Instagram and read all of her work over here.

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I founded Couturesque Magazine when I was 15 years old because like many of my peers, I felt ignored and talked down to by all of the other teen fashion publications out there. I figured that at the end of the day, the people who knew the most about my generation, were the people who belonged to it. The fashion industry is becoming increasingly dependent on the creativity of younger voices who challenge the status quo and make us rethink what we wear and why we wear it. And that is exactly what Couturesque set out to celebrate - authenticity, intelligence, originality, and diversity... in other words, what makes Gen-Z tick. Fast-forward to 2016 and we now have a staff of more than a dozen fashion distruptors contributing to our daily content from all around the globe, 100K+ readers following us from Toronto to New York, to London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and a plethora of big-wig industry fans and collaborators. But what matters to us the most is the responsibility that our publication has to make a positive impact in the lives of those who come across it - we stand against retouching our photoshoots and we stand for sharing the beautiful, individual, complex voices of everyone, especially those who feel marginalized by mainstream fashion media. We hope that you love our site as much as we do and that you take the time to follow us (Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Pinterest / Tumblr / Snapchat / YouTube) throughout our journey to make fashion accessible to the powerful young adults of today.

Tia Elisabeth Glista
Editor in Chief