The ugly mess of school dress codes

Ever since my children started attending public school, the idea of a student dress code has weighed heavily on my mind.  Actually, if I go back even farther in time, I would say that I’ve always opposed the very idea of a dress code, especially one that forces girls to cover their bodies because it “distracts” boys from learning.  It’s become an even bigger issue as of late because my daughter, who is now nine, is able to point out parts of the dress code that are archaic and don’t make any sense.  For example, students aren’t allowed to wear hats in the building?  Why?  Are the hats themselves a distraction from learning, or is the enforcement of this rule the real distraction?  And of course, she is starting to notice the different standards of dress for boys and girls both in and out of the school.  “Why can’t I take my shirt off and boys can?” she once asked.  I had no good answer.  Even if she did have breasts, I still don’t understand why women are forced to cover their chests.  So I explained a bit about society’s expectations for the way girls and women should dress, and yes it is unfair, but the consequences for breaking that rule isn’t worth breaking the rule (at least not yet in her life).

Our school district’s dress code policy is quite simple and sums up the issue of boy’s and girl’s dress in this way: “Clothing will not be permitted which is revealing, suggestive, or otherwise distracting.”  However, this is open to interpretation by teachers and principals, so individual schools have created additional policies that force girls (as young as kindergarten) to start thinking about how other people, namely boys, might react to the way they dress.  Skirts or shorts can’t be too short.  You can’t wear sleeveless shirts to school.  The dress code at my children’s school actually does say that both boys and girls have to follow these rules.  But there are two problems:

  1. Boy’s shorts that you buy in the store are never too short where girl’s shorts often are. So girls are right away faced with two different standards of dress.
  2. The rules aren’t always enforced equally.  Regarding sleeveless shirts specifically, boys at my children’s school wear sleeveless shirts and are not asked to change.

There are other rules that I find odd like girls aren’t allowed to wear makeup.  Now, I’m not going to allow my daughter to wear makeup at age nine anyway, but what business is that of the school?  Unless the girls are preening themselves in class, there is no real distraction from girls wearing makeup.  So through the specific rules imposed by my children’s school and how they are enforced, one can easily see that there are two different standards of dress.

So then, I wonder why do we even care about how people dress as it pertains to sex and gender?  Where do these two very different standards come from?  Sadly, it comes from two ideas that are still prevalent in our society:

  1. Men find women to be highly desirable sexual creatures and are subsequently distracted and aroused by a woman’s sexuality.
  2. It’s the woman’s responsibility to guard herself against arousing a man’s sexual desires.

And I have the same two responses I’ve always had to these arguments:

  1. Men are capable of controlling themselves even when distracted or aroused by a beautiful woman.
  2. Women are not responsible for men who choose not to control themselves.

Dress codes that impose these double standards seek to place all responsibility for whether or not a boy is distracted on the girl and perpetuates our rape culture.  It restricts girls/women and forces them to follow a standard that they might not agree with, taking away control over their own bodies (even if we’re only talking about control over what to place on them).  It assumes that girls/women need to protect themselves from unwanted advances instead of teaching boys/men to control themselves.  And don’t men find this assumption insulting?  And why aren’t men held to the same standard?  Regarding sleeveless shirts, shouldn’t they cover up their sexy arm muscles?  I might be distracted by them.

What I also find disturbing about different dress codes is it assumes that how someone dresses communicates sexuality, desire, and availability. This issue becomes even more confounded when you add on the fact that we, as a society, can’t agree on a standard of dress or what one communicates based on how they dress.  There is no standardized formula that says if a girl wears this, then she feels, wants, or is like this.  But a dress code certainly assumes that people are trying to communicate through dress (which simply is not true) and attempts to standardized how we communicate through dress.

When we start assigning different dress codes to boys and girls, we are automatically making an issue of how someone chooses to dress by creating arbitrary standards of dress, authoritatively assigning meaning to styles of dress, and perpetuating incorrect assumptions that boys cannot control themselves.  If you didn’t have an issue before the dress code, you do now because the very presence of the dress code requires enforcement of the dress code itself (which is in itself a distraction from learning) and the standards it seeks to uphold.

So, how do we handle unfair dress codes in our public schools?

First, I have to say that I am not an expert on challenging school policies or dress codes.  I have challenged school policies in the past, and I’ve lost some battles and won some battles.  On this issue in particular, I am waiting for my children to wish to take on this battle because they are the ones who will feel the backlash, not me.  So my first piece of advice is to ensure that your child or children are onboard for the battle and ready to take on some backlash.

Next, take some time to understand your school’s climate.  Schools are huge political machines, and educators are forced to please many group simultaneously, some of which contradict each other.  Even though schools are pleasing many different groups at the same time (including the school board and parenting groups), they must always follow the law, and equality laws in the public sphere are very clear.  Title IX specifically talks about gender equality and access to educational programs and opportunities.  One could argue that punishment because of how one dresses, especially if that punishment results in a removal from class, is exclusion from educational programs and opportunities.  So in addition to understanding your school, check out Title IX and your state laws.

Start with you challenging the dress code, pointing out inequalities present in the girl’s and boy’s dress code.  Don’t bring your children into battle yet.  Make it between you and the administration.  Also, address the dress code directly as well as Title IX and state laws.  This is where you’ll have the most clout.  Be clear about what inequalities exist and what you want the school to do about it.  Keep in mind that schools will most likely opt for a conservative solution.  In the case of sleeveless shirts, my school would most likely begin to enforce that rule with the boys instead of allowing girls to wear sleeveless shirts.  Make it clear that if the school does not respond to your satisfaction, you will continue to push.

Bringing in the ACLU might be a likely step, but they likely will not act on your behalf until the school has actually punished your child or treated your child unfairly.  So you could formally warn the school that an unsatisfactory response will result in you contacting the ACLU, but you might have to force a punishment.  This is where your child needs to be onboard.  They will have to intentionally go to school breaking the dress code (in protest of course) in an attempt to illicit a punishment.  Then you have legal grounds to sew the school for imposing different standards on boys and girls.

Lastly, but most importantly: Document everything!  Write down dates, times, what was said, who said it, etc.  Try to get the school to respond to you in writing, so if you have to bring in the ACLU, you have documentation of the gender-based discrimination.

I have said many times, and I will continue to say that if we want to create real change in our culture, then we have to be ready to challenge people’s ideas about how boys and girls and how men and women should act.  The goal isn’t to constantly challenge people in court, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to use these hard fought equality laws to our advantage.  We change people by being different ourselves, by refusing to do what’s expected of us, and by questioning those expectations.

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