Dress Code | Kennedy Essmiller
Gather round, girls—preteens, tweens, teens—crowd together. It is time for your annual women’s talk. You each are given two squares of tile with shimmering surfaces to stand, to sit. You can reach out and touch the shoulder of your best friend, the shoulder covered in a wooly sweater despite the Oklahoma heat.
The Dress Code is in place for a reason, the administration says, the office ladies tell you, the women who give you Band-Aids and Tylenol, the women who are paid to protect.
This year will be no different than last year or next year. Each girl, each woman, could say the speech by heart. You silently mouth along.
No spaghetti straps—blouse straps must be at least three fingers width apart, but not three of your fingers, three of your male teachers’ fingers. You think that maybe we should use Mr. Stewart’s as his are the smallest, thinned with age, the skin sagging with the weight of wrinkles. The thought of his fingers on you bare shoulders make you squirm, and you shudder and spill out for a moment, briefly broaching the borders of your carefully allotted tiles.
The administrators continue.
Do not wear skirts that are above your knee and don’t even think about shorts. Jeans or dresses, there is not an in between, not for the Daughters of Christ. You cannot wear such skimpy attire around the boys. You remember
the-not-so-virgin Mary, they ask, like clockwork. Of course, you remember her, even those of you who were years behind her, those of you who never even saw her belly swell with life. Mary, whom they memorialize and vilify with each and every meeting, ever since she fell pregnant four years ago, back when most of you were in middle school, beginning to receive the same speech she had received.
The road to pregnancy is paved with short skirts and spaghetti straps. If you get yourself pregnant, you will be asked to leave. If you get yourself pregnant, you will become a cautionary tale, told to future generations, the children you will carry. Your name will be heavy with shame, taste metallic in your mouths. They do not say what will happen if you get yourself pregnant and hide it, remove it, make your own choices about your own body. Your body, Mary’s body.
Mary, who used to read Junie B. Jones to you when she babysat, who was forbidden from walking across the stage at graduation.
And still, it continues. The boys cannot control themselves—boys will be boys. You are women, the presence of blood between your legs declares it so. It is your obligation, your privilege, and your joy in life, to protect the boys, the students, your teachers, your principal, and your friends’ fathers.
You think of the father of your best friend, consider his eyes on you, and you shy away from her, inching ever so slightly back, retreating ever so slightly into your squares.
If your shirt is hugging your budding breasts, it is too tight. If your shirt is hanging low and revealing your collarbone, it is too loose. Show no straps, bras are a hidden delicacy, meant to be shared between a man and his wife. Embrace your femininity. Wear makeup and shave your legs. Be ashamed of your body. Cover your legs, only sluts wear red lipstick. Boys don’t like girls who don’t put out the effort. Adjust your cleavage or your male teachers will have no choice but to send you to the office. Be ashamed of your breasts that can sustain life, boys will view them as sexual organs.
Their perception is the authority.
Cross your legs, collapse into yourself, take up as little room as you possibly can. Remain in your two tiles, always. Boys like small girls, petite girls. Obey the Dress Code, or you will be sent to the office, sent home to change.
Your education, your comfort,
you are not valuable.
About the Author:
Kennedy Essmiller is a queer writer who earned her MFA at Oklahoma State University. Her short story, “Mountains” won second place in the University of Western Alabama’s 2017 Sucarnochee Review Fiction contest. Her nonfiction essay, “The Three Drinks of Christmas” was accepted for publication in Oklahoma State University’s online undergraduate literary magazine Frontier Mosaic. Her short stories, “Permanently Inked” and “Bittersweet” were chosen as the winner for the 2018 and 2019 Oklahoma State University Ruby N. Courtney Writing Scholarship, respectively. She is an academic advisor and dog lady. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @kennedywogan.