Can We Talk About Dress Codes?

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

You all know the stories by now. Every day they pop up on the news and in social media feeds. A few weeks ago it was prom dresses, but now that summer’s in the air, it’s going to be all about shorts, dresses and sleeveless tops. And none of the stories are going to be about boys.

Here in America, we like to express our compassion for the women in burkas. We talk about how it’s unfair that women have to cover themselves up completely to protect themselves from the harassment of men, or protect the men from the thoughts that will invade their minds when they see a woman’s body or face. We’re progressive, we say. We’re open-minded.

And then we start talking about what teenage girls are wearing.

The length of their shorts, the height of their necklines, the tightness of their leggings and even their sleeves are being scrutinized by school officials in an effort to…what? Protect the girls from the boys? The boys from the girls? We can’t always figure it out.

This note was posted on Reddit a few days ago, then made its way to Imgur, and has been making the rounds:

Girls are getting frustrated. Can we blame them?

The Canadians aren’t immune. This girl in Trenton, Ontario, was given a 24-hour suspension for wearing this dress to school.

The day before, she’d worn thigh-length shorts and a tank top, and no one said a word.

Here’s another reason the dress codes are so confusing:

What’s wrong with this outfit? Nobody knows. Not the girl who was sent home, not her sister who posted the picture, and not all the people who commented on it.

Things have gotten so extreme that a 5-year-old who went to school in a spaghetti strap dress—something my daughter does regularly, at age 7—was sent home at the end of the day with jeans under the dress and a T-shirt on top of it, because spaghetti straps are “against the rules.” In kindergarten.

Her dad wrote a really great article about the incident, expressing his astonishment at what happened to his daughter. He said, “The continued fascination of people that a girl with too much skin showing, or who develops breasts early or any number of other things is somehow opening the door to everything from commentary about her purity to outright assault is in no danger of going away. But I swear to God and all his Alf pogs I really didn’t think that I would have to face that particular dragon before she even entered a numbered grade.”

In my opinion, it’s the principle behind all these dress codes that needs to be examined. School officials are digging into the nitty-gritty, looking at cleavage, thighs, necks, backs and shoulders.

It’s a bit much.

It’s a lot much.

My daughter is 7—is she supposed to cover up, too? Are her shoulders dangerous to the boys? Is she asking for attention she shouldn’t have or want? It’s only going to get worse as she gets older; at the exact time that she’s starting to notice herself as a woman, she’s going to be told that she’s trashy or slutty or too sexy when she walks out the door in a summer dress. That’s a hell of a message, isn’t it?

I’m glad for her, then, that girls are speaking up. Look on Instagram, look on Twitter. You’ll find girls posting notes, complaints and photos, all about how they’re tired of their schools’ obsession with their sexuality. More and more parents are backing up their daughters, taking on outdated rules and challenging the idea that it’s the girls’ responsibility to stay covered or risk punishment.

I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I stand behind all these girls, because my daughter will soon be among them, and because my middle-schooler son is living in their world, and he’s already confused by it. “Why can’t the girls wear tank tops?” he asked me. “I don’t know,” I told him honestly.

And I don’t.

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