It's Time to Drop the Dress Code for Girls

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Another week, another dress-code story. This time it’s a high school in Connecticut that’s insisting on pre-approving the girls’ prom dresses—a rule that was instituted a week before the prom. This means that the girls and their families, many of whom have already shelled out hundreds of dollars for dresses and alterations, are SOL if a teacher or the principal vetoes their outfits. Among the potential offenses: dresses that expose the midriff or back, are strapless, or have cut-outs that show too much skin. Students and parents are up in arms, objecting that the guidelines were not spelled out in advance of prom-dress shopping season.

This is only, I dunno, the 900th dress-code story that’s bubbled to the top of social media in the last few years. If you haven’t been paying attention, spoiler alert: It’s always, always, about girls, not boys. (No one cares what boys wear.) There was one in which a girl was sent home from the prom because her short dress was distracting to the male (adult) chaperones. There’s this one, in which a girl was punished for wearing leggings. Or this one, about yoga pants. Or just general shorts-length rules. Or halter dresses. Or tights. Or running shorts. Or leggings, again. Or a sixth-grader in shorts. Or even, get this, a 5-year-old in spaghetti straps told to cover up.

Folks, newsflash: This is how women and girls dress nowadays. You can wring your hands and yearn for the days when the coeds sported circle skirts and cardigans, but, according to my mother, those ladies got in trouble too, for their too-tight sweaters. In the 1930s, women in trousers were considered risqué. Victorian ladies could shock the gentlemen with a brief flash of ankle. Long story short, women and girls wear clothes, of all types and lengths and degrees of constriction. Fashions change. How about you just deal with it.

If you don’t like how girls and young women are dressing, don’t work with girls and young women. If you are afraid your sons will be so distracted by a classmate’s back that they won’t get the full benefit of the physics class, well, enroll them in all-boys schools.

The problem is not that girls are distracting. (I was plenty distracted by boys in high school, and it wasn’t because they were in skimpy clothes—in fact, as the school was in New Hampshire, I began to fetishize down coats and duck boots.) And this is not a matter, as schools often argue, of learning to dress professionally. How to dress for the workplace is a topic that can be covered in five minutes before a young person starts his or her first job; it’s just not something you need eight years of training for. Workplace dress norms vary by job culture, anyway—how you dress on Wall Street is not how you dress in Silicon Valley, and this is something that individual job seekers will suss out when the time comes. In fact, schools have their own cultures, and girls represent half that culture. How about the girls get to decide how they present themselves?

So, no, the problem is not distraction, or learning to dress professionally. This dress-code policing is a way of putting girls in their proper place: Girls and women are making strides in education and in the workplace. They’re now getting the full benefit of the physics class. Reminding them that the most important thing about them is their bodies—and what other people think of their bodies—is a way of ensuring that a good amount of their headspace is taken up with how do I look considerations. It’s a theft of bandwidth.

This is a power struggle, pure and simple. It’s a determination on the part of institutions to exert control over girls and women, essentially saying: I’ll decide what you wear, and I’ll tell you if you look appropriate or not. I’ll decide whether you’re attractive. And in order to walk this impossibly fine line between appropriate and inappropriate—never mind flattering or unflattering—you will spend a considerable amount of your time and energy trying to navigate the minefield called “getting dressed in the morning.” It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a girl to wear something that is universally appropriate and attractive.

So here is a modest proposal: Forget dress codes. Just scrap them. If your kid’s school has one, protest. Lobby the administration to get rid of it. Who in the world cares what girls are wearing? (Oh, here’s a peek into the minds of boys: The girls’ clothes could never, ever be modest enough for boys to not notice that there are girls in their midst. It could never be modest enough for skeevy dads to not mack on teenage girls.) Clothing should be a subject dealt with at home, between kids and parents. Schools should stay out of it.

Let the men and boys worry about themselves. Set the girls free. Even now, in my 40s, a certain amount of headspace is dedicated to clothing myself in an appropriate way that is neither too young nor too old, too flashy nor too frumpy. This is the true misogyny—the brain-clutter of continually calibrating your looks, clothes and behavior to please everyone else. It’s almost like there’s no time for learning.

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