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Dress Codes in Schools: Spaghetti Straps, Midriffs; Adults' Need for Control

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Welcome to spring in the school world! With the warmer weather, adolescents shed their winter feathers and, as in the current case in Woodstock,VT, adults navigate the perilous waters of spaghetti straps, bare midriffs and skirt length. As has been sharply pointed out by critics in the Woodstock brouhaha, the peril is nearly always expressed in female terms. Teachers at Woodstock Union Middle School convened a girls-only meeting to discuss this complex issue, creating a bit of a tempest, drawing accusations of sexism and poor judgment. The administration apologized and went back to the drawing board, intending to craft a revised policy.

I've sailed these spring waters for 18 years and can testify that there are no easy answers, but a good start is to recognize that "less is more." (I don't mean that phrase to be the dress code!)

Here is my school's dress code:

"Calhoun does not have a detailed dress code. We expect that all students will dress in a way that is appropriate for a school setting and that their choices respect Calhoun's intent to sustain a community that is inclusive of a diverse range of identities. Students who make inappropriate or insensitive choices will be expected to reconsider. Calhoun's expectations for appropriate dress encompass the understanding that gender expression is not binary, that racial and cultural influences may inform students' choices, and that individual self-expression is a natural and important part of human development."

With a dress code, the devil is in the details. So we avoid them. The policy has multiple intentions. First, we explicitly reject the notion that appropriate attire is gender specific. A teenager in Pennsylvania was recently turned away from her prom because she wore a black "men's" suit. School officials threatened to call the police if she refused to leave. The school's principal ignored a reporter's request for comment. What could be said other than, "I'm sorry" ?

Our policy also acknowledges the risk that expectations may be based on subconscious racial, cultural or religious bias. The last phrase in our policy is perhaps the most important. We recognize that adolescent expression and identity are developmentally crucial. Repressing this expression with an arcane and detailed dress code is not wise or productive. It is a mistake to pathologize healthy teen-age experimentation. I am particularly baffled by dress codes that specify such things as hair color. Other than serving as a statement of individuality and creativity, what possible threat to a school environment is manifested in the color of a student's hair?

Adolescents will test virtually any rule adults can conjure up. If a dress code specifies a length in inches, the teenager will try to get away with measuring in metric. If spaghetti straps are outlawed, they'll try fettuccini straps. All of the testing around the petty details distracts from the conversations that are important. Our policy does not surrender the right of the school to determine what is appropriate, but it does promise that the determination will be a matter of discussion leading to reconsideration, not mindless enforcement of a rule. If we believe a student's choice of attire is inappropriate or insensitive, we are obligated to a dialogue, which is where learning can occur. This is where the blurry line between confident comfort with one's body and the risks of self-objectification can be examined.

Any discussion of dress and sexuality is affected by cultural norms and values, which change over time. The attention some schools place on these issues reveals more about the adults than the students. I've heard adults talk as though a bare midriff is nearly pornographic, or that sagging pants are indecent exposure. Really? An adult who is deeply concerned with a girl's bare midriff may need some self-reflection. If an adult finds a bra strap overly stimulating, a good therapist might be indicated. Sagging pants are a cultural phenomenon, not a highly sexualized choice. My experience is that many of the "choices" that raise the hackles of adults don't get a second glance from the kids themselves.

Perhaps some of the clothing choices young women and men are making today are because they have healthier and more open relationships with their own bodies and with each other. Might we have as much to learn from them as they do from us?

This first appeared in the Valley News