Last year, when I wrote about how dress codes and, more importantly, their enforcement, many girls, and a few boys, wrote to me about their experiences and attempts to challenge discriminatory rules at their schools. One of the best responses I received however was this one, from Anna Russett.
My favorite part is the "just sink into the walls" bit. It made me smile for days and, I admit, it was cool to see her so humorously and pointed play with words I'd written down. After only appearing at my kids school for more than a year in clothes that violated code (leggings, skirts, over-the-knee boots), I shared it with several teachers and administrators.
Is there a school where the everyday sexism of dress codes are not an issue?
Everywhere, institutions are grappling with legitimate challenges to the ways in which traditional dress code policies affect students, particularly girls and kids who are not gender-conforming. Thankfully, girls and their male friends who get it are challenging institutions everywhere. In their terrific piece, Girls Speak Out Against Sexist School Dress Codes, Cecilia D'Anastasio and StudentNation comprehensively detail the many ongoing initiatives undertaken by students. Some of the most notable includea group of girls who "showed up wearing [banned] leggings in protest, holding signs that read, "Are my pants lowering your test scores?" In another, a student taped a poster up in her school halls that went viral and started appearing in schools around the country. One group of girls created #Iammorethanadistraction so that their community -- young men and women and parents could have a constructive dialog about the problem.
Challenges against rules like "no spaghetti straps," or "skirts below the knee" aren't superficial. The #Iammorethanadistraction movement is a serious one that ultimately confronts tolerance for institutionalized male sexual entitlement. Not a day goes by when girls are not castigated and sent home as a result of this entitlement. Frequently, in harsh disciplinary responses, teachers and administrators publicly humiliate and shame girls who are pulled out of class, sent to detention, suspended or otherwise punished in unhelpful ways. Even if girls are privately reprimanded, every time an adult tells a girl, or a roomful of them, they are a "distraction" they fail them, and, in fact, all students by conveying dangerous ideas about control, whose perspective should be central, sexual assault and more.
If you are inclined to think this is just about girls who want to be sexy then you are willfully not interested in understanding what is going on. Make no mistake, when school administrators patrol hallways checking out the legs, arms, shoulders and skin of 10- and 11-year-old girls, and micromanaging their appearance, they are objectifying them and encouraging them to self-objectify in the same way that popular media or purity cultures do.
Way before girls begin to consider being sexy school dress and uniform codes and their enforcement have quietly introduced ideas fundamental to gender-based discrimination and the reinforcement of hetero-patriarchal norms. Dress codes have less to do with sexy than with social order. They are like sumptuary laws, frequently, unconsciously or not, designed to protect a sexist, frequently racist and homophobic status quo and kids know it. Two days ago in Texas, a 5-year-old Native American boy with a lengthy braid, was told by his school that his long locks were illegal. African-American kids regularly encounter similar issues. Similarly, a 12-year-old African-American girl in Orlando faced expulsion because she wore her hair naturally. In May, after senior Jessica Urbino's picture was taken out of her yearbook because she was wearing a tux, students rallied in support and wore ties and bow ties to school. Granted, they were at a Catholic school -- so all bets are off when it comes to expressions of sexism and homophobia. However, conservative religious institutions are, under effective student protest, finding ways to modernize their dress codes. For example, Farrah Cukor led a successful challenge at United Synagogue Youth which led to an end to the ban on girls and women wearing pants. In 2014.
What your school's approach to children's appearance says is vitally important to understanding how carefully they've thought about the underlying ideas. Forget skirt lengths for a moment and consider:
Why can't a boy wear a skirt if he wants to?
Why should a boy have to have his hair cut short?
Why can't a girl wear her hair cut short?
What's wrong with yoga pants and leggings anyway?
Who thinks it's a good idea to Photoshop girls' yearbook pictures and add clothes?
Why is it so important, if not to maintain discriminatory social orders, to make sure girls conform to traditional femininity and boys do not, that boys are clearly "boys" and girls are not?
These acceptable practices have very long tails, from controversies in the military regarding African-American service women's hair to the Iowa Supreme Court (all male), which decided that employers (in this case male) can fired distracting employees (understood to be sexy female).
People genuinely concerned with "morals" and "inappropriate" appearance deflect consideration of serious issues that affect both boys and girls when girls clothing is what they are focusing on. No doubt, the most evident red flag words, displaying utter failure to appreciate the impact on children that discriminatory codes and harsh enforcement have on children, are "distracting" and "inappropriate." Both assume that the appearance and needs of young, straight, usually white boys are central and normatively "neutral."
Dress codes are an opportunity for school communities to constructively and positively tackle much larger social issues that kids, parents, teachers and administrators are grappling with. Students have good ideas that administrators frequently ignore. Parents have legitimate concerns, about topics like bullying that need to be connected to this issue. Administrators and teachers have better things to do than be hallway monitors and fashion police. There are thoughtful approaches developed by educators that don't get the important attention that they need, which means that schools are still woefully unprepared to constructively and positively address issues related to diversity, especially gender and sexual diversity.
Respect for the learning environment and the people in it has to include respect for all students and, to date, that's not a universal understanding. Books like Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools by Elizabeth J. Meyer and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks are a good place to start thinking about these ideas.