The Finger Tip Test and Sexism in Schools

By Sarah Muzzillo

I’m 12 years old, and I’m sitting next to my friends in our worn, 70s-yellow gymnasium. It’s the fall of my 7th grade year and hundreds of pre-pubescent middle school students sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the dark green bleachers. “Move down,” we’re told. We need to make sure everyone has a place to sit––nobody is allowed to miss this particular assembly.

Our principal stands in the center of the basketball court, commanding attention. We have no choice but to remain silent.

A middle-aged man, principal what’s-his-name, was demonstrating “the fingertip test”. “Remember, girls, your shorts, skirts, or dresses cannot pass the fingertips of your extended arm,” he said. His words are burned into my awkward middle school memory.

Although it was hot in the summer, and maybe I wanted to wear that cute spaghetti strap dress or fun, lightweight shorts, I couldn’t. Because my male principal said so.

I’m sad to say I didn’t think anything of this. “Those are the rules,” I thought. “I need to follow them so I don’t get in trouble. I’m not a troublemaker, I’m a smart girl,” I thought. “I stay in line, get good grades. I’m not a distraction. Not like those other girls.”

Internalized misogyny starts early.

As a young girl, I already began to adopt harmful ideas surrounding autonomy and competitiveness with my fellow sisters. I learned to categorize who was a “good” and a “bad” girl.

Looking back, I now know how destructive this was. I always felt slightly uneasy about dress codes, but I never understood why. I didn’t have the language then to articulate my subconscious feelings of frustration.

But female students are not the only ones affected by harmful school policies detailing what is or isn’t an acceptable outfit.

Since these guidelines undeniably target girls in order to “minimize distractions,” boys are taught it’s normal to view their female peers as sexualized objects that can be controlled. When a girl is sent home for what she’s wearing, teachers and administrators effectively communicate that perceived male comfort supersedes her education.

According to dress code policies, women’s bodies must be regulated because they are public property. Dress codes, therefore, normalize and perpetuate rape culture. Not to mention, these strict rules, which typically dictate what “boys” and “girls” can wear, reinforce the gender binary by rendering gender nonconforming young folks invisible.

Ultimately, shouldn’t schools value education over appearance? Why aren’t teachers and administrators teaching students to respect others’ bodily autonomy?

How many headlines or viral videos have taken over the Internet of girls wearing the outfits they were sent to the office or home for?

Dress codes and policing young women’s clothing choices is a pretty consistent topic of conversation in the media. This past March, United Airlines made news for refusing to let two girls board their flight because their leggings were deemed “inappropriate.” A principal was recently recorded fat-shaming her female students. For the past two years, a Wisconsin high school has required girls planning to attend dances to send photos of their dresses to administration for approval.

However, dress code policy is slowly beginning to change, largely due to social media. After a teacher embarrassed and shamed her for her outfit, a Portland sixth grader started a hashtag to bring attention to sexist dress codes: #iamnotadistraction, which quickly went viral.

A high school in Illinois recently adopted a respectful and inclusive policy to replace their previous one, thanks to a model created by Oregon NOW. Hopefully, more schools will follow suit.

It’s time to encourage the body autonomy of students. It’s time to combat rape culture. It’s time to let girls wear what they want.