Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Challenging Dress Codes

I'm speaking at my daughter's school's parents' association meeting tonight. These are my talking points.


I think we need to seriously challenge thinking around dress codes in school.

Two things in recent news: girls getting kicked out of school for clothing that is completely normal in clothing stores, on TV, what their mothers would wear, etc.

Main reason: their clothing is distracting, not only to the boys, but to male teachers.

The widely held idea that a girl must cover up to protect adult males shows how little adults realize about their own responsibilities.

Elliot Rodger killed 7 people and injured 13 at a California sorority house because he was upset that women were having sex but not with him.

These things are connected and I think we need to pay serious attention to the messages we send as adults, especially institutional messages.

I have two daughters and this is very important to me but I think it’s also very important for parents of boys.

Challenging Thinking Around Dress Codes

I have very strong feelings about adults in authority continuing to perpetuate a culture in which girls are taught:
  • Their bodies are shameful
  • They must somehow figure out how to fix sexual feelings for men and boys

 At the same time, we are teaching the boys:
  • They are not responsible for managing their own feelings
  • Sexy girl = available girl

Boys and girls being distracted by one another is normal and natural.  A lot of dress code enforcement is about dumping adult baggage on them:
  • The more developed a girl is, the more threatening her body is... to adults
  • Many of the children getting targeted by dress codes are developed girls
  • That young girl with breasts, she already has to deal with looks and judgment. Do we really have to add to that by calling her out and asking her to wear stuff she might not even own?

The idea that a girl must cover up to protect the boys is insulting to the boys (and can create false feelings of entitlement) and shaming to the girls. Especially when this is a time we should actually be teaching them about consent (I really like this young woman's video).

Ideas for Changing the Approach

I would like to suggest that the school consider guidelines, for boys and girls, based on gentleness, context, and how children need to dress to actively participate in their day.

Can they get through a day in a tank top and shorts? Yes.

Can they get through an active day in high heels and a short skirt or pants that are hanging below their bum? Not so much.

At my older daughter’s middle school, the language used is “distraction-free” and “business casual” (with a lot of specifics about length of shorts and bra straps). But the context is a school. These are children, not sex objects, not bank teller trainees.

I would like to see teachers and administrators consider using these kinds of words:
  • No one should be allowed to make you feel ashamed of your clothing or your body
  • If an adult feels like you need to wear clothing that covers more of your body, they will talk to you and your parents about it
  • Sometimes traditional people feel like it's ok to ask people to dress more conservatively: chests and armpits covered, can't see underwear
  • Sometimes it can help, when we're in a place like a school where there are people of different ages and backgrounds, if people dress a little more conservatively

What’s available
It’s important to acknowledge that girls dress differently than boys and they are wearing normal clothes for sale at all stores that sell girls’ clothes.

Involve students
Shouldn’t students be involved in creating their school’s dress code document?

Using a dress code: be gentle and check in with your own feelings as an adult
In terms of how any type of dress code is used, I would strongly ask schools to consider a gentle rather than enforcement attitude.

If a teacher or staff member notices a student wearing clothing deemed inappropriate, these are ways to address that I suggest might be kinder and less shaming. The first thing to do is focus on why the adult has a problem with it.
  • If you are uncomfortable, can you consider owning your discomfort without putting that onto the child? (Is she a developed girl, for instance? Is she actually wearing normal clothes?)
  • Is it actually causing anyone else in the class a problem? If so, what exactly?Can it be addressed honestly, perhaps in private with each student, instead of laying the problem on the child?
  • If the student must be spoken to, contact the child's parent so that the child has an advocate

Most important: children should not called upon in public to change their clothing.


As I said, I have very strong feelings about this. When I was a young woman I had severe eating issues. I continue to have body image issues (what woman does not?). I have had many instances of sexual harassment in my life and way too many women I know have been sexually assaulted.

Let's be really cognizant of how our messages to young people contribute to a world where people do not have health around these issues.

1 comment:

  1. Goosebumps!

    You nailed for me what are the issues.
    It's not around having a dress code I'm actually okay with a dress code that makes sense. (Kindergarteners should wear shoes they can run and play in.)

    Two things come to my head every time I hear anything about this:
    1. I hate how people deemed not within the dress code are publicly shamed.
    2. I hate how girls are made responsible for boys (and adult teachers) behaviour. (Harassment is never okay)

    I live with 2 examples of the male species who are sometimes (okay more then sometimes because of culture and age) uncomfortable with sexuality and therefore women's dress. It never has and never will make them mistreat girls or women. They own their own discomfort.