Dress codes, redux


It’s that time of year! It’s finally starting to get warm enough to put the winter coats away for good, and the summer clothes are starting to make their way into our weekly rotation. After a long cold stretch, it’s such a relief to be able to feel the sun and breeze on our skins in the time we have outside every day.

It’s also a contentious time of year: though we know it happens throughout the year with yoga pants and leggings scandals, school dress codes hit their biggest enforcement times as the warmer layers are peeled away, even at the primary level. It seems like every day over the last week or so, someone in my Facebook feed has posted an article or blog post involving one more tween/teenaged girl who has been taken aside for dress code violations. Arguments go back and forth:

Schools are places of business, where students are supposed to be learning how to dress appropriately.

Schools are places where teenaged girls should feel safe to try on different identities without fear of being targeted for harassment.

It’s too hard for boys to concentrate when girls are dressed in ways that draw attention to their bodies.

Dress codes are enforced haphazardly, primarily target girls and young women, and those students who are more physically developed are targeted more often than those who are not.

Students should be learning how to follow the rules, and parents agreed to send their kids there knowing the rules. Flaunting a disregard for the rules of the space shows a lack of respect for authority.

Dress codes that are gendered are a symptom and a reinforcer of rape culture.

This is just a handful of the arguments I’ve heard from both sides of the fence. As with most arguments, everyone believes they are correct about their own perspective. I understand all of these sides. I’m sure it can be distracting if a young woman is wearing a tank top and shorts in class. I also think that everything on the planet acts as a distraction for many teenagers (girls as well as boys), and I am far more interested in supporting students as they learn how to self-moderate and control their responses to the world around them than I am in shielding them from having to ever figure this out.

I also recognize how some would see value in having universal rules from K-12: if 5-year-olds are expected to wear longer shorts and belly-covering tanks with thick straps, it won’t be so hard to convince them to do so when they’re 12 and it “matters” (and it only matters when our bodies hit that point where adult sexualization comes into play). We’re teaching modesty, in theory, from a very early age, so that adolescents will embrace this as a value when they start to make their own decisions about how they want to be seen in the world.

I hear the argument. I get it. I don’t agree with it, though. I think that when little girls are told from early childhood that they have to cover their bodies, they internalize the message that something about their bodies needs to be hidden. Whether this is for social conventions of modesty or personal safety or any other reason, shame becomes associated with appearance very early.

I’ve written previously about my experiences of sexual objectification in high school, and how much shame I felt about my changing body both before and after it received unwanted attention. This experience has informed my current thinking on dress codes. I don’t entirely believe that it’s the distraction of the young men we’re focused on. I do think that top-down enforced dress codes include an element of adults sexualizing children and youth, and may lead to a feeling of tacit permission by adults for young men to provide unwanted attention to the young women in their classes – regardless of appearance.

I’m actually not against dress codes. I think, however, that we do everyone a disservice when we don’t include all the stakeholders in the decision-making process. A major focus in the Ontario curriculum, at all grade levels, is critical thinking. We expect students to learn how to think critically across all subjects. Does it not make sense, then, to have them apply these skills in practical, hands-on ways? Have a conversation with students:

Why do we have dress codes? What’s the function of a dress code in our school?

What helps you learn? What gets in the way of your learning?

What are the safety issues that go into certain clothing choices? How do we define “safety?”

You want to create a dress code you don’t have to enforce? Get the people most affected by it to be your primary stakeholders.

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2 Comments

  1. nikkiharvey said,

    May 23, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    I agree with all you’ve said yet I’m generally against dress codes because they easily get too strict. At my school, you weren’t supposed to wear coats, hats and scarves indoors, which was completely impractical. If you were seen indoors and not stood right inside the door with a hat, scarf, or coat on they were confiscated, so everyone crowded by the door as they took them off. As I said, impractical. If done well, dress codes are good, but usually they just get left and never reassessed.

    • May 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm

      I don’t think dress codes are *necessary.* I do know, however, that going entirely dress code-free is a hard sell. With early and ongoing negotiation and discussion, maybe it’s possible to reach a compromise that centres on mutual respect and doesn’t maintain gendered ideas of “appropriate.”


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