I get asked frequently how I feel about dress codes or what my opinion is on the most recent story in the news of a parent and their daughter defying an imposing school dress code. My opinion is that school dress codes are necessary in an age when young men’s fashion is overly casual and so much of the young women’s apparel on the market is sexualized and girls are encouraged from childhood to sexually objectify themselves in order to gain social worth. The problem is not with girls, but everything and every one around them.
I will forever support girls demonstrating agency and using their voices. I think school dress codes, the way many are written, include multiple forms of body shaming and gendered double standards. I abhor the idea of reprimanding female students by sending them home or forcing them to wear bulky, baggy clothing as a slut-shaming dunce cap. The word “modesty” gives me hives.
At the same time, when you are a student school is your job. Dress like it. Show up ready to do your job. Respecting your role is a form of respecting yourself and what you are at school to do.
It is this simple: Don’t wear Saturday on a Wednesday.
^I learned that phrase during a discussion with my colleague Julia V. Taylor (author, “Body Image Workbook For Teens“) who told me a principal she used to work with would say it to her teaching staff when they were dressed too casually or inappropriately for their profession.
This concept teaches our kids, girls specifically, three very important things:
1. There is a time and place for different manners of dress without shaming what those different styles may be or wanting to explore those different styles.
2. It still allows for agency and does not lend to body shaming and Rape Culture. The focus shifts from a young girl’s body to what is the appropriate attire for the time/place/function.
3. It teaches young people who have been immersed in a sexualized culture since birth there is no requirement to be sexy at all times. It teaches self-awareness.
But what do high school dress codes look like in practice and how do they impact students?
High school student Alexus Miller-Wigfall was going to receive an in-school suspension for this dress deemed inappropriate. Say whaaaa??? The dress is long-sleeved and floor length. Alexus and her date look stunning and elegant. Alexus’ mother believes the decision came because of Alexus’ curves. Even when completely covered, girls are still punished for going out in public with their bodies. In 2015. In America. In France, girls can’t win no matter what they are wearing.
Today’s high school girls ABSOLUTELY should be challenging body shaming and sexist dress codes, which is most effectively done when not sexually objectifying themselves. Leggings? Bare shoulders? Fine. Side-boob, under butt and bare midriff? Come, let’s have a little chat about how we dress for the job of learning……
In theory, this sign is great. In application, it just doesn’t work for me.
Today’s high school girls should be able to decide for themselves what to wear to class. Leggings and a tunic? Great, get to class on time. Society will not fall because we can see the outline of your hamstring. At the same time, today’s high school girls cannot undo thousands of years of human sexuality and biological responses to visual sexual stimuli. There is a balance between body shaming our female students and using common sense about being human beings with innate sexuality. There is a time and place for sexy. Being fifteen years old and sitting in Algebra is not it. Pubescent heterosexual boys are going to take in interest in female bodies, therefore girls in tiny shorts, bra straps, enormous amounts of cleavage in barely-there tank tops are distracting. The onus is on the boys to refocus and act respectfully because teenage girls are deserving of respect no matter what they do, or don’t, have on. And girls should respect their institution of learning and their education by dressing like Wednesday. Not Saturday.
The topic of school dress codes is not a zero sum game. Yes, fight against the idea that female bodies and sexuality are sinful, distracting, and something to be monitored/controlled/punished by a higher (most likely male) power. Yes, fight against dress codes that punish sexually mature female bodies and plus-sized, curvy bodies. Yes, teach boys even when a girl is dressed in a way that catches their eye they are still fully expected to react respectfully towards that person and they are fully responsible for their words and behavior towards that person.
At the same time – write school dress codes in a way that is gender inclusive and lists for students what is appropriate and professional attire for school Monday through Friday. Let’s help students identify and build up their personal brands as opposed to listing body parts and various forms of tight or revealing clothing that will apparently undo the education system and enlightening of the general public.
The education system has bigger problems and frankly, so do our students. Let’s keep the school’s focus where it should be – on the minds and intellect of the students. Hey school administrators, our brains are up here.
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.