“Hey, Barbie doll!” my cousin taunted me while we played basketball. “You should be better at this with those legs,” he laughed.
The wave of shame that washed over me was all-too-familiar. I was all legs, an attribute I was learning to loathe as I entered my tween years.
The reminders that something was wrong with my body were relentless. My middle school PE teacher would blow her whistle at me and yell that I should be able to run the mile faster. During the dreaded reach test that checked flexibility, I failed every time.
I was constantly humiliated for the stark contrast between my lack of athletic ability and my long legs. I would lie and say I had cramps to avoid running that gravel track. Nothing was more embarrassing than my gangly stems in full view of my peers.
If sixth through eighth grade was bad, high school was torturous. School officials were cracking down on the dress code which meant girls’ shorts and skirts had to be finger-tip length. Not only was I unathletic, but I wasn’t fashionable either—the epitome of uncool.
While some of my shorter friends rocked ruffled daisy dukes, which were all the rage in the ’90s, I was forced to wear shapeless knee-length skirts or workout pants. And prom dress shopping? Talk about a nightmare.
I had equally as many issues in summer, including at camp. No two-piece swimsuits on girls, no high-cut swimsuits, no crop-tops, no spaghetti strap shirts, no bra strap exposure. The rules for boys? Wear a shirt unless you’re swimming. The inequality in dress code policies is not only alarming, but offensive.
The rationale was that girls like me would tempt boys into uncontrollable lust. In order to keep the drama down, girls like me were policed by teachers and lunchroom monitors. Any violation meant going to the principal’s office and selecting an oversized, donated clothing item that was deemed more appropriate.
It didn’t matter that my boobs were the size of mosquito bites, and I had chicken legs complete with knobby knees. There was nothing voluptuous or sexy about me. I was a book nerd who acted in school plays and wrote articles for the newspaper.
It’s not that I didn’t want to fit in. But I couldn’t dare try to rock a trendy pair of platform shoes which would render my legs even longer. I stuck with tennis shoes, playing it safe. Even if I wanted to try to fit in with some of my cooler peers, I wasn’t going to risk a trip to the school donation box.
Whose idea was it that in order to cut down on teen pregnancy or “inappropriate behavior,” the best practice was to tell girls who were in the peak of their self-esteem crises that they needed to cover up? This directly tied in to the True Love Waits trend which peaked in the 1990s. The message was damning to all kids. We were taught that boys were uncontrollably horny and girls needed to protect their downstairs treasure at all costs.
What’s troubling is that not much has changed. I’m a mom of four, and my tween just had a growth spurt. Her legs are longer than mine were at her age, and yes, like me, her fingertips definitely do not reach the bottom hem of her shorts.
Yes, there are more clothing options today than ever before. Shorts come in a variety of lengths, including Bermuda. I’m loving the options of maxi dresses and midi-skirts, simply because I’m a mom who has to bend over one thousand times a day. Having more choices is always good, but it’s unfair that long-legged girls like me and my daughter should be ordered to make others more comfortable.
I’m no pearl-clutcher, but I’m not advocating that we let ass-cheeks hang out. However, when we teach girls via our dress code policies that it’s their responsibility to keep sexuality out of the school day, I’m disturbed. How about teach everyone about respect and consent?
And can we talk about how creepy it is that schools expect teachers to spend their precious minutes inspecting and judging our girls’ bodies instead of educating? And why is a skirt that’s an inch shorter than finger-tip length the guarantee of uninhibited lust?
There’s nothing wrong with a few rules. I don’t want kids showing up to school with a racist or homophobic graphic tee on. I would definitely prefer a ban on MAGA apparel. But ultimately, the school dress code policy could boil down to this—don’t be a jerk. Not something along the lines of making girls conform like we live in Gilead.
Take Roanoke schools’ new dress code policy, for example. Their new policy is sheer brilliance. Students—yes, all students—should be covered arm-pit to arm-pit, including shoulder straps, and three-ish inches of clothing down the thighs. Easy. Equal. And ultimately, not shame-inducing.
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And while we’re at it, let’s ditch the ridiculous dress code policies for parents who show up to drop off or pick up their kids. I do not care what another mom wears to the school, because I don’t know what hell she’s been facing that day. The fact that she’s showing up for her kid is what matters.
I want my daughter to appreciate and love her long legs, not feel like they’re a curse or something to be managed. I’m going to remind her, and keep reminding her, of her amazing stems and how they helped her dance ballet and perform in gymnastics class. I can’t control what other kids say to her, but I can work relentlessly to affirm her, point out successful women with amazing legs — ahem, Serena Williams — and help her choose clothing that she likes.
Tween and teen girls have enough body-shaming and fitting-in drama to worry about. The last thing they need is for an adult to police their apparel, sending the message that there is something wrong with the beautiful body they have.