Last week, Providence College, a private Roman Catholic school in Providence, Rhode Island, released a flyer announcing that its fitness center would be “strictly” enforcing a dress code. This dress code, which is apparently not new, just not previously widely known about, prohibits the wearing of strappy tank tops, crop tops, any shirt that reveals the back, “revealing” shorts, and many other items of clothing. Color coded with a green column for clothes that are “encouraged” and a red one for “prohibited” items, the flyer has caused uproar on the college’s campus for featuring mainly items of clothing worn by women. Students argue that the dress code is inherently sexist because it polices what women can and can’t wear. The flyer, which is difficult to read because of the poor quality of the only image available online, never mentions modesty as a factor of the dress code, only “safety, comfort, and equipment maintenance.”
A few weeks ago, I saw an article describing a similar incident in which a female student at the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit school, was asked to leave the gym because she was wearing a crop top. When the student, Grace DiChristina, asked for a reason, the staff member cited the risk of MRSA, which is a potentially deadly infection that can be transmitted through gym equipment, and that the fitness center was owned by a Jesuit institution. Unlike Santa Clara, Providence never mentions their religious affiliation as a justification for the dress code. However, it seems rather apparent that this plays at least a small role in the implementation of these rules.
Several women who are students at Providence College wrote an open letter published on The Odyssey, that argues that the dress code is targeting women, and I agree with the majority of their points. Women’s athletic clothes are frequently designed to be revealing. It’s hard to find athletic tank tops for women that do not expose the back. One could argue that a simple fix would be to buy men’s athletic tank tops, but that’s a poor solution because they most likely would not fit properly and would impair movement and comfort. Yet, Providence’s dress code lists comfort as a main factor in deciding what is and is not allowed to be worn. The women of Providence write, “Asking women to avoid wearing tank tops is over sexualizing nonsexual body parts and setting a standard of what comfort should look like rather than feel like.” Racerback tank tops, one of the prohibited items, expose only shoulder and collarbone, which apparently Providence’s administration considered to be dangerous and seductive body parts with the potential to spread disease.
On one point, I disagree with the letter published in The Odyssey. The women write, “We are not unreasonable in these beliefs because we understand and even concede that certain clothing is too revealing for the gym, such as backless tops that reveal much of the back and sports bra.” People go to the gym to exercise (maybe some people go for other reasons, but I think it’s fair to assume that the majority of gym-goers are there to work out.) I feel strongly that revealing one’s back or sports bra is not necessarily inappropriate, especially in the context of the gym. Like I said before, people go there to work out– not do business or attend a religious service. Therefore, I don’t really see the point in having codes dictating what attire is appropriate. If you feel most comfortable running in a sports bra, you should be able to do that! I find their concession that some clothes are too revealing to be akin to victim blaming. What you wear should not affect how people treat you or interact with you.
I also don’t see how someone can subjectively decide what is and isn’t ‘appropriate.’ The flyer features two pairs of shorts that look very similar, but one is in the ‘encouraged’ column and one is in the ‘prohibited’ column. The same items of clothing, even if they are considered to be appropriate, might look very different on different body types. Will a curvier woman be more likely to be reprimanded for wearing the same outfit as a skinnier woman? Will a tall woman be kicked out of the gym because her shorts look shorter on her than they do on a more petite woman? I just don’t see how this dress code can be equitably enforced. It is controlling women’s bodies under the misleading paternal guise of being in the interest of “safety.” While this whole event may seem like an inconsequential dispute, it’s another episode in a long string of sexist policies that police the way women dress.