Culture, not just rules, must change for true equality


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TIME reported on Feb. 20 that a high school in Wisconsin that previously presented cheerleaders with awards based on a competition of body parts has ended the practice. While I don’t think any of us will shed tears over the riddance of this medieval practice, I’m sure we can all agree that it happened too late, and it represents a lingering problem in our society: that of objectifying women based on their bodies, not their minds.

TIME reported, “Coaches at Tremper High School in the Kenosha Unified School District give out awards each year recognizing the most improved or hardest working cheerleaders, but they have also given gag awards, called ‘Big Booty,’ ‘Big Boobie,’ and ‘String Bean.’ The last award has gone to the thinnest team member.”

These aren’t harmless little anecdotes. These toxic standards placed on women, especially during the mold-able high school years, can set in motion a spiral of self-esteem issues and problems.

CBS reported in 2014 that even with perfectly equal language in dress codes, women are still judged more harshly by what they wear. They are expected to spice up their wardrobe, never wearing things back to back, despite the fact that their male counterparts can wear the same clothing everyday with no backlash.

That CBS article reads, “Is it possible that our quest to hold women to fashion standards that we don’t apply to men actually inhibits a women’s ability to rise? Not only do we have to determine proper clothing, but we have hair, makeup and accessories to worry about. But for men, if it’s business-casual, throw on the Dockers and buttoned shirt. If it’s formal, get the dark suit, white shirt and tie. No big decisions involved.”

We’re making progress with laws and official rules, such as the high school awards being abolished and the more recent rule that Virgin Atlantic Airlines issued relieving their flight attendants and cabin crew from having to wear tight red skirts and makeup. They can now work makeup-free and wear pants.

But, despite these rules changing, there remains subtle rules in the workplace that restrict women. The NYT shared a powerful story last year that went in depth to show how waitresses put up with much harassment just to get better tips. How they dress, how they act and how flirty they’re willing to be all played into how much money they could make in tips, the study showed. It wasn’t an official rule that made their lives like this. It was a culture that perpetuates the sexualization of women. That’s what we have to fight.

For that to happen, men have to start seeing women’s equality as not just a women’s topic and issue, but theirs too. Until they hold themselves and others accountable for treating women with respect, no amount of rules will improve how women are treated in this country and world.