It's a school hall, not a shopping mall that Charlie Bushyhead, Union Public Schools' executive director of secondary schools, runs, and each classroom in this sprawling and very influential school district is a place where the focus of attention is toward academic formation, he says. Not a fashion runway.
"All of us (school administrators) have the same intent--we're just trying to have school; we're just trying to create a climate conducive to learning," he said.
Through the course of a discussion about his district's recently revised student dress code policy, Bushyhead commented that, when patrons walk into the clothing store Abercrombie and Fitch and look at the advertisements on the wall, the clothes the models are barely wearing aren't the most eye-catching feature.
While he acknowledged that there is some carry-over between the sex-based advertising he sees marketed to teenagers and what he sees on campus, Bushyhead downplayed that as a factor in the recent dress code revision.
"This is not some knee-jerk reaction to Abercrombie and Fitch advertising, and we're not trying to combat this 'tremendous social ill'; we're just trying to clearly convey expectations to our students that school is a place to learn," he said.
Bushyhead said the main concern behind the revision (which wasn't really that much of a revision, he said, but more of a reminder to enforce existing policies) was to stop (or "prevent," he clarified) students' attire from distracting from the task at hand.
"The intent is that their dress is not so extreme as to be a distraction," he said.
Sexually provocative attire is but one of many distractions the dress code policy is intended to address, he emphasized.
However, if the policy itself is any indication, a certain promiscuity-of-dress must have been a significant impetus for the recent attention on the dress code.
"Modesty will be the dominant feature in all clothing," reads the first guideline. The nine remaining guidelines specify that clothing "must not be revealing," one-piece swimsuits must be worn at the pool, and shorts, dresses and skirts must be longer than two inches beyond the tip of the longest finger with arms fully extended against the leg, and no tears, cuts or holes above that point are acceptable.
Topping the list of clothing and accessories that are specifically forbidden are tank tops and halter tops, low-cut shirts or blouses, clothing that exposes the midriff or back, any clothing that reveals undergarments and pants or shorts worn below the hip.
"Over-exposure is certainly a possible disruption," said Bushyhead.
He said his district's dress code policy is similar to those of other districts in the surrounding area with only a few minor differences. Dress code policies from Jenks, Bixby, Broken Arrow and Tulsa Public Schools, among others, served as models for UPS' revised policy, he said.
Union's new policy doesn't go as far as some others, though.
"One district doesn't allow holes in jeans at all," said Bushyhead, while his district's policy allows them in areas unlikely to cause distraction.
Also, a dozen middle schools in the Tulsa-area, such as Byrd, Carver, Cleveland and Zarrow, have decided to save students and parents the trouble of interpreting a dress code policy at all by requiring uniforms instead.
Tulsa-area middle schools are mirroring national trends in that regard. According to the U.S. Department of Education's "Manual on School Uniforms," beginning in the mid-1990s, numerous states have enacted school uniform regulations for public schools, including California, Florida, New York, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia.
Also, many large public school systems, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dayton, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix and St. Louis, have public schools with either voluntary or mandatory uniform policies.
Even in private schools, though, where uniforms are standard fare, kids are still finding ways to push the limits of their schools' standards for modest dress.
"We've noticed a trend: skirts are getting shorter; blouses aren't being buttoned all the way," said Bonnie Martin, assistant to the head of upper schools at Holland Hall, which requires its students to wear uniforms.
Martin said her school's uniform policy specifies acceptable lengths for skirts and that blouses are to be buttoned, but there has been an increasing need to actively enforce those policies.
Good Questions, Reactions
While responses are usually mixed when schools adopt a uniform policy, Bushyhead said his school's dress code revision, on the other hand, was relatively controversy-free, apart from a few concerns initially raised by parents.
"There have been some questions regarding spirit uniforms," he said.
One of the new rules is that uniforms worn on campus during the school day must meet dress code guidelines, Bushyhead explained. With the exception of pep rallies, he said, this rules out cheerleading uniforms.
Some parents raised tentative objections to this rule, he said, but simmered when the rationale was explained to them.
"Members of the wrestling team wear singlets, which is fine when they're on the wrestling mat, but you wouldn't want them wearing those to class," said Bushyhead, explaining that the same logic applies to cheerleading uniforms, which could cause the same level of classroom distraction as individual wardrobe choices forbidden by the code.
Bushyhead emphasized that he and other school administrators' purpose in their dress code policies is not to try to counteract the media's culture of sexual preoccupation nor to police students' conduct outside of school walls.
However, if a recently released study by the American Psychological Association is to be believed, classroom disruption (while remaining on the list) should be the least of our worries.
The media's "sexualization" of girls leads to a wide assortment of psychological and physical damage in the girls themselves and has a negative impact on society at large, according to the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which was released late last month.
The report defines "sexualization" as occurring when a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics, he or she is held to a standard that equates sexiness with a narrowly defined physical attractiveness, he or she is sexually objectified--that is, made into an object for sexual use rather than a person, and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person.
That this is happening to girls and young women, and happening on a large enough scale to possibly constitute a "tremendous social ill," is evidenced, the APA panel said, by numerous studies on mass media offerings in which young women and girls are sexualized.
"In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate," the report reads.
Samples of media and merchandise that fell under the study group's scrutiny are a "Naughty and Nice" Skechers ad featuring Christina Aquilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails and reclining in a suggestive pose, "Bratz" dolls dressed in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, thongs bearing slogans like "wink wink" sized for 7- to 10-year-olds and a televised fashion show in which adult lingerie models were presented as young girls.
Music lyrics were also fingered as a major culprit.
"I tell the hos all the time, Bitch get in my car," the panel quoted from 50 Cent's lyrics as their case in point.
"That's the way you like to ****... rough sex make it hurt, in the garden all in the dirt," read Ludacris' lyrics.
The panel also reviewed numerous studies on sexualization's effect on the well-being of women and girls.
"Although most of these studies have been conducted on women in late adolescence (i.e., college age), findings are likely to generalize to younger adolescents and to girls, who may be even more strongly affected because their sense of self is still being formed," the report reads.
The studies found that thinking about the body and comparing it to "sexualized cultural ideals" disrupts mental capacity and therefore academic performance. It also undermines confidence in and comfort with one's own body, leading to anxiety, depression, shame, self-loathing and "a host of negative emotional consequences" besides these.
Eating disorders are another frequent result, which adversely affect women and girls' physical health, the report reads.
The panel also found that "girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content offer stronger endorsement of sexual stereotypes that depict women as sexual objects... They also place appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of women's value."
In other words, girls who watch a lot of TV or listen to a lot of Ludacris or 50 Cent tend to become what they see and hear depicted (thinking of themselves as "hos" and "bitches" to be ordered into cars, for instance), and value themselves and other women according to how closely they fit that depiction.
Along with all of the aforementioned consequences, the task force also said fewer girls are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and they point to sexualization of girls as a contributor to that trend.
Girls and women aren't the only ones suffering from this phenomenon, the report adds.
"The sexualization of girls can also have a negative impact on other groups and on society more broadly," it reads.
The "narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness" make it harder for men to find women who measure up to their media-driven expectations, the task force found. Also, adult women may suffer by trying to conform to a younger standard of "ideal female beauty."
Also, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence are on the rise, the panel found, as is demand for child pornography.
Part of the Solution
Along with calling for funding for more research on sexualization in the media and its effect on women and girls (task force researchers have to eat too, you know), panelists also said raising public awareness of the issue should make the media, advertisers, marketing professionals and manufacturers more conscientious about how women are depicted.
The task force also recommended "school personnel, parents and other caregivers, community-based youth and parenting organizations... encourage positive extracurricular activities that help youth build nurturing connections with peers and enhance self-esteem based on young people's abilities and character rather than appearance."
Combating this problem might fall outside the jurisdiction of school administrators like Bushyhead, but here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, much of the recommended "positive extracurricular activities" translates as church participation.
With churches and mega-churches on nearly every street corner and Oral Roberts praying with his enormous golden hands for the well-being of the city, one might expect Tulsa, and Oklahoma-at-large, to be ahead of the game where adherence to biblical teachings on sexual morality is concerned.
But, is it?
In the United States in 2005, 46.8 percent of high school students reported having had sex at some point, according to figures gleaned by the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa from the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior System.
According to those same figures, 33.9 percent reported having had sex in the past three months, 6.2 percent reported having had sex before the age of 13, 14.3 percent reported having had sex with four or more partners.
Oklahoma wasn't terribly worse, but it was worse. In the Sooner State, 49.3 percent had had intercourse, 36.3 percent had had it in the past three months, 6.5 percent did before the age of 13 and 17.8 percent had done it with four or more partners.
Jan Figart, CSCGT's associate director, said Oklahoma has been as low as 15th in the past, but last year was 8th in the nation for teen pregnancies, and Tulsa was even worse off than the rest of the state.
A handful of Tulsa's better known church leaders were contacted so they could possibly shed some light on this seeming dichotomy, but some did not immediately return telephone calls.
Those who did, though, were Asbury Methodist Church's Senior Pastor Tom Harrison and Guts Church's Senior Pastor Bill Scheer.
"I don't know--you'd think we could do better than that," Harrison said. "As far as the reason--some of it goes to parenting, but not all. Good kids can make bad decisions."
"I think what's at issue here is that we can force our kids to eat right, but it's a crapshoot if they're going to when they're away from us," said Scheer. "Just being raised in church and forced to go to church doesn't do anything--it's a matter of personal responsibility.
"And it's not just about dos and don'ts, but understanding the principles--it's an understanding of the purpose of our lives and our relationship with God, and with that we reflexively obey those principles," he added.
"We're fishing here, and the bait you use is particularly important," he also said.
The "bait," Scheer explained, is to make church more "kid friendly," and thereby make it a more appealing place for young people to come to learn, among other lessons, a healthier standard of sexual morality than is offered by the mass media.
"If church were more relatable and applicable to real life, then we wouldn't have this problem," Scheer said. "And if traditional approaches don't work, why do we keep using them?"
Harrison said only a few instances of teen pregnancies have occurred within his 7,000-member, youth-heavy congregation, and that Asbury beats the average in that regard.
"One thing we try to do is, we try to educate our kids about sex," said Harrison. "What we say from the pulpit, which is sometimes spitting in the wind, is that sexual intercourse is for one place: between a man and a woman who are married. That's what the Bible teaches, so that's what I preach."
What about when that preaching is ignored?
"My first thought is, I just grieve for them. The last thing I would want to do is condemn people--they're already in a difficult situation. Just as I feel sad for a teenaged girl who's pregnant, I also feel sad that they're afraid the church will shun them and not love them.
"I would hope they would come to our congregation and experience grace and forgiveness and love and not a sense of condemnation. The church should help and not hurt."
They were also asked, given the observable facts, would it be fair to say that the church might be doing something wrong in its approach to "teaching them to obey everything (Christ) has commanded"?
"Oh, absolutely," answered Harrison. "I don't know how you could conclude otherwise. I'd be the first to raise my hand and say, 'Guilty as charged.' We need to be doing a better job."
Scheer said, "I believe we've got to confront reality, but the church, for generations, hasn't confronted reality--they confront how they wish things are."
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