Culture Confessions of a would-be dress-code violator

Confessions of a would-be dress-code violator



I had an experience that got me thinking about how girls dress. It happened while I was shopping in a major department store (something I never do) for a gift for a 6-year-old girl (something I rarely do.) I was shocked that many of the clothes for girls are basically miniature versions of clothes for adult women. You know: spaghetti straps, short skirts and tight yoga pants. This left my brain in a scramble and wondering about how girls dress for school these days. And about how they are supposed to dress for school. Which led me to wonder about who gets a say in the matter? In the late 1980s-early ’90s, I was a tomboy in middle school. At some point, my tender pre-teen self got worried that I might be considered a boy. To compensate, I took to wearing pink clothes to indicate to the world (aka my school) that I was a girl – only to learn later that no amount of pink attire would change who I was, what I was interested in and what I would or would not end up achieving. We all know that clothes don’t make the person. Nor do they confirm, deny or indicate a person’s gender, reveal their ambitions, desires, skills, talents or flaws. Sure, they can be a fun part of one’s self expression, but they by no means determine self-worth.

To me, this is related to school dress codes. Rules of dress seem to suggest that spaghetti straps that show your collar bone and yoga pants reveal some- thing about the girl wearing these clothes, or worse, about what the girl wants. Sort of the same way that my middle-school self thought pink clothes meant girl. How silly.

Girl in tank top and jeansDisagreements about dress codes have likely been around as long as there have been rules. But the democratizing power of social media, combined with student activism, has called more attention to unfair (and often arbitrary) rules about dress in schools. It turns out that lots of girls don’t enjoy repeatedly getting messages that their bodies are distractions to learning, or to, gasp, boys. In 2014, New Jersey middle school student Frankie Lindsay challenged her school’s administration, creating #Iammorethanadistraction, which started conversations among girls and young women around the country.

A Maine middle-school teacher told me she is uncomfortable enforcing her school’s dress code, particularly since middle school is a time when kid’s bodies are changing fast, and they are already self-conscious about the changes they see and feel, both inside and out. She does, however, feel strongly about enforcing a few parts of the dress code – no clothes with drugs, alcohol or racist depictions. Scarborough middle-school teacher Sashi Kaufman says, “Dress codes in schools concern me because they are accepted without critical thinking about the messages we’re giving kids (mostly girls) about their bodies. ‘Your body is an inappropriate distraction’ is not a message I want to be responsible for giving anybody.”

Along with girls, gender nonconforming and transgender students are also disproportionately impacted by school dress rules that try, unfairly, to dictate expression of identities. These cases are becoming common and rightfully being challenged.

Solutions to dress-code issues have to include administration, parents and students. Inclusive policy-making is a start, and it seems to me that students should be involved early in the process of developing rules everyone can agree on. By creating a system like this, students have a stake in the decisions and will be more likely to follow and respect them. And of course, ongoing dialogues about harassment, and LQBTQ education, need to be woven into these conversations at all schools.

Girl in tank topFinally, I wonder why girls, women teachers and transgender students carry the onus of changing things. Perhaps parallel conversations focused on educating boys and men about cultural misogyny and objectification of girls’ and women’s bodies would help foster cultures of respect at schools and beyond. Boys who disagree with objectification of girls’ bodies might be less likely to care about how wide a tank-top strap is on a classmate.

School dress codes seem, at best, an attempt by educational gatekeepers to protect our kids, but at worst, discriminatory, outdated and susceptible to unacceptable biases. All of this is to say that if I were a student in a public school right now, chances are I’d be a dress-code violator.

The typical code

While every school may have a different set of clothing standards, these are some common dress code threads, according to

  • Students must abide by the “fingertip rule” when it comes to shorts or skirt length (must extend beyond fingertips).
  • Students cannot show their stomachs (belly shirt) or their shoulders (in tank tops).
  • Shirts with profanity or an “R” rating – including illegal acts, substances, and violent and sexual content – are prohibited.
  • Leggings are treated as tights and must be worn with tops or skirts that follow the “fingertip rule.”


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