Dress codes are not inherently sexist, but what they constitute and how they are enforced can easily turn them into a tool against women.
The House of Representatives has been receiving a lot of flack recently for its vague and selectively enforced dress code beholden to the whims of Speaker Paul Ryan and what he deems as "appropriate attire."
In protest of the bizarre standards, Rep. Martha McSally (R-Rhode Island) turned up in Congress wearing two of the dress code no-nos for women: open-toed shoes and a sleeveless dress.
"Before I yield back, I want to point out I'm standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes," she announced to her fellow lawmakers during her stand on the House floor on Wednesday.
The concept of a dress code in the House is not new, but more so recently reintroduced under Ryan's reign. There's been a set of standards intermittently enforced since 1979, but in a CBS report, Billy House, chairman of the Standing Committee of Congressional Correspondents, said "good luck" finding any clear-cut rules.
In June, Ryan merely stated that, "Members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House however brief their appearance on the floor may be."
That is where things get sexist. "Appropriate business attire" can mean different things to different people, some of whom have outdated views of women. McSally was wearing a professional dress that just so happened to be sleeveless, but according to Ryan, that is inappropriate congressional attire because she is baring her shoulders.
Yet, while giving a PowerPoint presentation in March, the Speaker removed his code-required blazer and rolled up his sleeves, looking profoundly less professional than McSally in her open-toed shoes.
Furthermore, this dress code isn't required by the Senate, nor in the White House itself. The devil is in the lack of details.
Since the crackdown, female reporters struggling through the Washington, D.C. heat while doing their job have been turned away for showing too much skin. Men have been offered, what one reporter dubbed, "ties of shame."
It's fine to have a dress code, and there's something to be said about dressing uniformly for the sake of furthering equality. However, to avoid confusion and sexist reinforcement, it must be defined clearly so that every lawmaker — regardless of gender — is held to the same standards, instead of policing women's bodies.
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