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What do school dress codes really teach our daughters (and sons)?

There is certainly nothing new about a woman being censored for her dress. Ankles were once considered shocking. Women were not permitted to wear pants on the U.S. Senate floor until 1993. And in 1907, Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellermann was arrested for indecency when she appeared in a “scandalous” one-piece swimsuit, which resembled a full wetsuit more than any modern-day swimwear. (On the upside, Kellerman’s one-piece suits became popular and she launched her own line of women’s swimwear.) Clearly, “indecent” and “improper” are concepts that are subjective, momentary and guaranteed to change.

Nevertheless, recent times have seen a resurgence of these terms as they are applied to girls and young women violating school dress codes, which many people see as both sexist and ridiculous. If you are in any doubt about the prevalence of the issue, one short search of the topic will set that to rest. Example after modern-day example pops up all across the nation of young women and girls being punished with suspension, being banned from graduation, thrown out of prom and publicly shamed for their choice in clothing. Boys are also being called out for wearing hats or baggy pants in school, but the bias against girls is clear.

Being suspended from school or banned from graduation due to a capricious and sexist dress code is tragic; however, those penalties are nothing compared to the long-term impact of the messages, both subtle and overt, handed out alongside the punishment. Girls and young women are told that they are planting impure thoughts in their male peers’ heads and that their bodies are “a distraction” that prevents boys from studying—a concept that simultaneously shames girls and insults boys by implying that they’re incapable of maintaining respectful behavior in the presence of a bare shoulder.

Molly Neuman, an 11-year-old from Portland, made national news when she went to school with “#iamnotadistraction” written on her forearm after being told that she was exactly that for wearing a racerback tank top to class at King Middle School. In Blue Hill, students at George Stevens Academy came out in protest last fall against their school’s dress code. Incoming senior Iris Benson Sulzer was away from campus when things came to a head, but is no stranger to the debate. “I got dress-coded a bunch of times when I was a freshman,” says Benson Sulzer. “The dress code used to be exceedingly strict, and it was pretty unrealistic, considering the styles available to teenagers today.”

What’s more, the rules weren’t always clear. “One time, I was pulled out of class by a substitute teacher because my skirt was too short. I had to sit in the office until the person in charge of discipline arrived. She said she couldn’t do anything because my skirt [was long enough], but I missed that entire class.”

“We do try and control women’s sexuality by telling them how to dress,” says Amy Simpson, a Portland-based therapist specializing in body image and eating disorders. “Dress codes are designed to control girls. The usual list of regulations is much smaller for boys than it is for girls.”

“Instead of men and boys being taught to be respectful, we cover the girls up,” Simpson says.

It’s an issue that extends well beyond Maine’s borders. Lily Clark, an incoming freshman at a high school in Texas, has encountered that issue as well. Clark says she has been publicly reprimanded and punished at school for numerous violations, including jeans with ripped knees and tank tops that didn’t meet the “three-finger test,” (using three fingers to measure the width of a piece of clothing, like the shoulder strap of a tank top). This suspension seemed particularly unfair to Clark: “I checked in the morning and it was three fingers wide for me, but [the teacher] had really big hands so it wasn’t three fingers for her.”

In many schools, the response to student protest is additional punishment. Clark, for instance, says that speaking out is met with additional suspension. At George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, however, the response was different. Head of School Tim Seeley suspended the rules that incited the furor and convened a task force of students and faculty to develop a new dress code that allows for individuality while respecting the comfort level of adults on campus.

The new dress code was ratified this spring, and student Sulzer says it’s “reasonable.” High praise indeed. And while saner rules are a step in the right direction, the real power in the move made by Seeley and the faculty of George Stevens Academy doesn’t lie in the rules themselves, but the process that created them. Students were invited to participate, they were listened to and they were respected as valued parts of the school community.

“It goes back to having those conversations,” says Simpson. “Let’s give girls and boys the tools to think this issue through and make their own choices.”

Heather Martin lives on the coast of Maine with her honey, two sons and assorted animals. When she’s not working with various museums, art programs and nonprofits on community building, she’s usually off causing mayhem with the above-mentioned crew.

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