The Real Message Dress Codes Send To Our Daughters: Your Body Makes Us Uncomfortable

by Liz Henry
Originally Published: 
A girl standing in a yellow skirt, trying to fit in with the necessary dress code
Liz Henry

Let me start with this, and then I’ll get to why I’m asking: Are leggings pants or are they tights? It’s the philosophical question of our age.

I drop my daughter off at her new middle school. She’s a sixth-grader, which means she’s like an embryo in the hierarchy of middle school. There are locker combinations to master, class schedules to remember and, rules, a lot of rules to follow. As her mother, I forget this. I remember middle school as my favorite years of rebellion: first party, first boyfriend, discovering Courtney Love. I would never be the same.

My daughter is a sweet girl, shy, hilarious, artistic; likes basketball shorts and wearing T-shirts with movie logos. She doesn’t like attention, and no one would ever mistake her for a rebel. The latter has always worried me, but nonetheless she doesn’t rock any boat. I’ve worked hard to be the body-positive mother I never had; I think I’ve done a good job. So far, anyway.

Driving away from the school, I’m only a mile away when my phone rings. It’s her, in tears. “Mom, I need you to bring me different clothes. Bring me jeans.” I don’t have a chance to ask why.

I arrive back at the school with jeans in a plastic bag and a few pads tucked into a makeup bag, just in case. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I know whatever happened she’s embarrassed, mortified. I feel for her, and if it’s her period — why else would she need new shorts — I struggle before I get to the office to stir a pitcher of lemonade. In front of her, I know I’ll pull something out that helps her not think that being a girl is a disaster.

She’s in the office waiting, and I hand her the plastic bag. We walk out into the hallway and I pull her close, grab the makeup bag with the pads, and tell her I brought them just in case. She hurries away and asks me to wait until she’s done.

I walk into the front office and take a seat. “How embarrassing,” the secretary says to me.

“I don’t exactly know what happened. She’ll tell me when she comes out of the bathroom,” I say.

“Oh, it was her shorts. They were too short.”

I was not expecting this. The secretary tells me an eighth-grade teacher pulled her aside and sent her to the principal’s office. I sit there, enraged, but quiet. I’m a feminist, I’m a body-positive feminist, I’m shaking my mental fist at the commoners and their stupidity for toeing the line on policing girls’ bodies and disguising it as a “dress code” when what they really mean is “slut indicator.”

“I think they’re being a little ridiculous,” the secretary says. “If they have all these rules, why not have the kids wear uniforms?”

Well, because that’s not really the point, I think, but I understand her sentiment of frustration. Apparently she has a daughter, too. And then she drops a bombshell: Leggings are not allowed, either.

“That’s not in the handbook,” I say, “because I specifically read it.”

I don’t say that I sometimes read things I know will piss me off so I can feel superior and self-righteous. I also don’t say I know for a fact the shorts my daughter was wearing fall below her extended hands. Anything shorter, the dress code marks as an 11 on the slut indicator of driving little, uncontrollable penises mad.

“Well, it’s a rule. No leggings unless a girl is wearing a dress or shorts on top of them. They’re considered tights.”

I want to ask her for a withdraw form. This school, three days in, is already too much. I tell her I know she’s just the messenger, but I’m having a hard time understanding how leggings are not pants. I tell her, the messenger, who quite frankly couldn’t give a damn, that leggings are a body equalizer; that no matter your size, every girl and woman can wear them. I continue — because I’ve given myself a mental podium and I’m going to use it — that leggings are also a socioeconomic equalizer; no matter your family’s income, black, stretchy cotton means you can fit in.

She doesn’t say anything.

What is there to say? That middle school, for most girls, is an introduction to the way their bodies are not their own, and that now they’re defined by the way other people, in particular boys, may or may not respond. Boys are to be protected and girls are to comply. The burden of consequence, girls begin to understand in middle school, is on them. That’s not to say that boys don’t have their own problems to deal with — like closing off their hearts to emotions for muscles — but dress codes were not made for the respectability of boys, they were made to send crystal clear messages to girls: Your body makes us uncomfortable.

None of this is new, I know that. But it is new for the girls among us and that infuriates me; that girls — my girl in particular — are still asked to put their value not in how they see themselves, but in how teachers, adults, boys, view them. On that particular day, it didn’t matter that my daughter was comfortable with her body in motion, that she was so proud to have found denim shorts that didn’t guillotine her middle; an arbitrary rule was broken and for that it was worth it to the educators to hold off on teaching math and language arts and instead give a girl a lesson on why rebellion isn’t so bad, after all.

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