Dressing down the dress code

A few days before school started, my daughter Annie and I joined the kids and their parents who filled the school auditorium for seventh-grade orientation, excited and expectant, as the principal and assistant principal prepped us on school policies. They spent a lot of time on the dress code: “Girls, listen up, because our dress code violators are almost always girls. Nothing sleeveless at all. Even if it’s not a tank top. If it doesn’t have sleeves, you’ll be wearing the scrubs. If your skirt or shorts are more than five inches above your knees, you’ll be wearing the scrubs. Some girls last year used to think that it was okay to walk around looking wearing leggings, looking like Kim Kardashian or Buddy the Elf, but if you wear leggings this year, you’ll be wearing the scrubs. Same with sheer tops, even if you wear a tank top underneath. ” Cheerleaders (in tank tops and tiny skirts) shared the stage with the administrators as they explained the policy.

****

She had her first day of school outfit planned weeks in advance– a black skater skirt measuring exactly three inches above the knees, a colorful t-shirt, and ballet flats. They sat on the chair in her room, a signal that summer was drawing to an end.

I greeted her at the door when she got home after school, “How was your first day?”

“Fine.”

She was quiet. Too quiet. Something was up.

“Was it good to see your friends again?”

“Yeah. . . . But I think I almost got in trouble.”

Annie isn’t a girl who gets in trouble. She would probably do just about anything to avoid being in trouble. “Really? What happened?”

“I was walking down the hall, and this guy, a teacher but I don’t know which one, called out to me and said that my skirt looked too short.”

***

The scrubs of shame are bright yellow and green, with “DRESS CODE” written in large letters all over the pants. Bryce, my eighth-grade son, says the kids who wear them look like prisoners.

****

“Mom, K got dress coded today.”

“Why?”

“She was wearing a t-shirt with wide sleeves, and even though she had a tank top on underneath, I guess you could see a tiny bit of bra under her arm, peeking out above the tank top.”

****

“I was about to go downstairs when a ninth-grader warned me that I needed to pull down my skirt all the way to my knees because there was a teacher down there who was on a rampage.” It was school picture day. By the end of the day, dozens of kids were in the scrubs.

****

“I don’t get the whole dress code thing. One guy in my class had a shirt with a naked lady on it and he didn’t get dress coded,” Bryce said.

****

Principal’s Announcement: “Girls, we’ve been having an issue with skirts. You girls may be look at yourselves in the mirror in the morning and think your skirt is long enough, but don’t forget, you have a bump in the back, so the skirts may be shorter in back than you think.”

****

Is your child’s dress code similar? Does a dress code make you feel better or worse about your child’s junior high experience? What do you think about putting the onus on twelve-year-old girls while letting the boys off? Does too much emphasis on what people wear backfire and reinforce sexualization? If increased enforcement of a restricted dress code is not the answer, then what is?

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

27 thoughts on “Dressing down the dress code

  1. This comment will raise some ire, but here goes anyway. Needing dress codes is one more example of schools having to parent in addition to their real role which is educating. So many things schools have to do now that are really parental responsibilities

  2. When I was in junior high I had a t-shirt for a ‘save the whales’ organization with a whale tail on the chest. Every time I wore it there were several boys in my class who would comment on the fact that the placement of the whale tale emphasized my lack of breasts. Despite their commentary, I still wore it to school. Junior high boys (and girls) can make anything sexual if they want to (and in my experience they usually did).

    The junior high and high school I went to had dress codes that were more about preventing gang activity than tamping down sexuality. Short skirts and halter tops were OK, bandanas and baggy pants weren’t. I moved my senior year of high school to an area where people generally dressed a bit more conservatively (and it was colder), but sexual activity and comments were just as prevalent.

    None of my kids have hit junior high yet and I have yet to deal with this kind of thing, but I find the emphasis on things like tank tops and short skirts a bit heavy-handed from your description. Especially if, like in most schools, cheerleaders get uniforms that don’t adhere to the dress code either. Some will defend strict dress codes as minimizing distractions, but I think that if you take it overboard, enforcement can become a bigger distraction.

  3. i have a boy at the same school, and even though he’s nowhere near having a dress code violation, it burns me that the school is behaving in this manner. if they want to have a uniform, FINE! it’d be absolutely fine with me. but this arbitrary, nitpickedy focus on clothing–especially on the girls–(and don’t even get me started on the out of line “bump in the back” comment over the PA.) makes me want to storm in there and shake someone. and i’m not an angry, violent type. at least so far i haven’t been. just ticks me off.

  4. In 7th grade I was a cheerleader with a shortish skirt that had two slits that went up even higher on my thigh. That year the school came out with a new dress code (or placed a new emphasis on an old one?) that was something to the effect of skirts must extend beyond the reach of our fingertips when our arms were extended down, including any slits. The 8th grade class president, who was not a cheerleader, went on a rampage about the cheerleading skirts that lead the vice principle to place about a dozen of us (including me) into in-school detention. We missed classes because an administrator who had approved our uniform order and design decided after the fact that it was unfair to make us an exception. This led to parent outrage, an after-school open-mike assembly that made it on the local news, and a lot of anger. It concluded with us being allowed to wear our uniforms on game days, but our cheer pants and t-shirts on school spirit days.

    This experience was frustrating and confusing to me at the time, but I think that the conclusion I had at the time is the same as the one I have now. Cheerleading uniforms should either conform to the school dress code (there are options other than tank tops and super short skirts), or the dress code should change to allow all girls to dress that way. The cheerleaders do not choose their uniforms and should not be punished, but the coaches and administrators need to take responsibility to send a consistent message.

    I don’t have a good solution for appropriate dress code enforcement at a uniform-free public school, but I know that inconsistency causes confusion and resentment.

  5. The dress code enforcement feels like authorities sexually harassing your daughter — really a male teacher calling out to her that the skirt might be too short…. and remember that you have a bump in your back?
    Seriously? Not Okay.

  6. I have mixed feelings on this – I think that schools need dress codes, because so many pre-teens and teens wear inappropriate clothing to school, either not being caught/seen by a parent before leaving the house or with the blessing of the parent. And in theory I think the idea of having something more unattractive for these kids to wear when they choose to wear inappropriate clothing is a great idea – it should make them think twice about what they wear to school. However, to single out girls is not ok, as one of your children pointed out – guys wear inappropriate things as well. And the tank top rule should apply to all students, since those muscle tank tops are so popular with guys right now. So I guess where the problem lies is enforcing the dress code fairly, which I can see is a problem.

    Last year at my daughter’s school, there was a girl who wore skirts so short you could almost see the bottom of her, well, bottom, and shirts that showed cleavage. My daughter told me a few times that this made she and her friends feel uncomfortable. So I told her to mention it to the principal if it was a problem for her, and the principal could look into it and decide whether or not it was truly inappropriate clothing. Well, the principal told my daughter that she would not, in fact, look into it, and that any complaints about other student’s clothing had to come from a teacher, and that these kids should just not look at the girl. Um, what? While I understand that you can’t have other kids enforcing the dress code (imagine all the false complaints and bullying there) my daughter simply asked the person in charge to look into it and see what she thought, and was completely shot down. So what is the point of a dress code that you aren’t going to enforce?

  7. The principal actually said you have a bump in the back?? I’d be all over calling him on that. That’s more sexually suggestive than a lot of the skirts he was complaining about I’m sure. Makes me sick.

  8. Growing up, our dress code was rarely enforced. Because seriously. And now my kid goes to a school with uniforms.

    But your school sounds like a problem. Like a serious harassment problem brought on by a control problem. This is something I don’t think should continue.

  9. I don’t mind dress codes. I think, in fact, that they are a good thing. But I don’t know how you go about enforcing them without resorting to the ridiculously draconian tactics you talk about here. It is creepy to have a male teacher telling a 12 year old girl her skirt is too short. It is wrong to have a dress code for boys but not for girls.

  10. All of that just sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. When the good kids get dress-coded, and the kids you know have either no parental support or the parents don’t care don’t get called on it, the good kids will find a way to quietly rebel, whether it be all of them wear something equally horrible (Oh, no! A tank under a sheer shirt, which is what my 10 year old wore today!) or they’ll give up and wear ratty sweats and ratty tees.
    While on its face, the second option may look fine, the attitude that comes with it will be “I can’t win. I won’t try,” which will bleed into homework, class participation and extracurricular. I can’t win. I won’t try.
    Oh, and the cheerleaders who are allowed to wear their uniforms will be ostracized because it’s blatantly unfair and completely arbitrary.

  11. When I was in high school the idea of uniforms was so horrible to me. But now I think all schools should have uniforms. It would be so much easier!!

    Also I hate that they are singly out girls. It’s horrible and I agree that their behavior seems like sexual harassment. I think you need to do something to stop it. At the very least I think the school should have a policy that only female teachers should be involved with dress code violations with female students. I don’t think the male teachers should be saying anything or even looking! That just creeps me out big time!

  12. Maria- We are in Utah. And having grown up in a place where dress code was reserved for gang paraphernalia and t-shirts with offensive language or images, it’s been a little shocking.

    Heathermommy- I agree about the uniforms. My elementary school kids have uniforms, and it’ really takes this whole discussion off the table. And if the discussion is going to go the way it seems to be going here, I’d rather have them all in khaki pants and polo shirts.

    Katie- I also agree that the cheerleaders don’t get to choose what they wear, but that the inconsistency makes it hard for everyone. I hadn’t ever thought that the cheerleaders might feel like targets, I think I just thought they might be happy to be getting away with something the general populace couldn’t.

    Morgan- I think your principal was unnecessarily dismissive of your daughter, which must have been really hard for her after she gathered up her courage to go talk about it in the first place. As the mom of a 13yo boy, I do understand feeling conflicted about what happens when people’s clothes are distracting. My son, (who would be mortified if he read this) is at an age where any glimpse at a girl is liable to send him into a hormonal fit. But I’ve been trying to teach him that his reaction to people is something he has to control, and he can’t control what other people wear or say or do. At the beginning of the summer, we were going swimming, and his sister came out to the pool wearing a tankini that didn’t show her belly. He started going off on how he’d learned in deacon’s quorum that two-piece bathing suits were evil and told her she had to go change because she was going to tempt all the boys. Let’s just say things did not go well for him after that, and she did not go change. Sometimes I think that part of my responsibility as a parent is deprogramming some of the crazy thing the kids are taught.

    And it does seem incredibly creepy to have male teachers inspecting the girls. The whole thing feels a little like Lolita to me.

  13. when we lived in la, all of the schools had a simple uniform. it was always something like khaki or navy bottoms and polos in white or the two school colors. it was to reduce gang issues, but also solved a lot of other problems.

    our kids are in k-8 parochial schools with a strict dress code. it seems to be equally enforced, though their code allows very little wiggle room. i’m a fan!

  14. I don’t really have anything new to add. I just want to agree with a couple of things (ie, add my voice to that side):
    1. The dress code should be equally enforced.
    2. Repeatedly singling out the girls in general (the publication of the code stating this is mostly a problem with the girls, the announcement about the girls skirts and “bump in the back,” and personally being called out in the hallway among her classmates) is absolutely inappropriate.
    3. It is inappropriate for male teachers to be addressing this on an individual or general basis in this manner.

    All of the above are teaching girls to feel shame, teaching boys that girls should feel shame about their bodies but that they (the boys) can wear whatever they want and actually participate in shaming girls (the nude t-shirt?!?), that boys when they grow up are entitled to call out girls and dictate to girls (their wife, girlfriend, co-workers) what is appropriate attire for them, and teaching boys that girls have done something wrong if they wear clothes other than this dress code (and it is not a very far leap from that to “they deserved it” or were “asking for it” by what they wore).
    I was feeling nauseous reading your post. I am sorry you and your children are in this situation.

    I think dress codes are fine, when they are reasonable and enforced reasonably and equal. There is no acceptable reason for shaming or humiliating.

    The scrubs are also unacceptable and shaming to a greater degree than the “crime” warrants. My daughter’s school sends the kids home to change. If the parents have to leave work and come pick them up, so be it. It may be a hassle, but I think it is more appropriate.

    We changed high schools last year–from a western city to the Bible belt rural south. My daughter had to adjust to the stricter dress code. She is like your daughter in being careful not to break rules. But sometimes, you just don’t know when someone is on a rampage and goes beyond the reasonable mark. On some days, my daughter carries an extra blouse in case the one she is wearing raises ire (but she doesn’t really know, she asks my opinion if it fits the dress code and I don’t know either). It sounds like your kids’ school would not give her the chance and would try to make her wear the scrubs.

  15. I absolutely agree with everything Kate S. said. I would love for you to go to your school administration (and if they don’t listen, go to the superintendent, the school board, the PTA, whatever it takes) armed with all of this reasoning, and then report back to us. If the school wants a dress code, they should require uniforms.

  16. From your description, it almost sounds like the administration gets some sort of perverse pleasure out of reinforcing the dress code with these scrubs. Does the public humiliation of wearing the scrubs really have the intended effect of changing behavior? When I was in junior high, your parent was called to bring you more clothes. This put some of the burden back on the parent for making sure the child was dressed appropriately each day. It seems like your school is making a overly big “thing” out of the dress code. If they are going to nit pick every little thing, uniforms would make a lot more sense.

  17. There must be a good way to enforce a dress code, but this school’s approach seems likely to backfire in the minds of the teenagers. I imagine many of them now believe modest dress is just something strict and creepy teachers find joy in forcing upon growing girls (but not the cheerleaders.) Of course, the concept of dressing with decency is something best taught by parents.

  18. Growing up the dress code at my school was only to ban offensive t-shirts: no sex and language on your t-shirt, and tuck in your shirt. That was it.

    I can’t believe how far some schools are going and mostly how they are enforcing it. Wow. While there are always students pushing the ticket, because kids do that- it is only reinforcing the sexualization of what the girls are wearing by calling such specifics into question that everyone is getting so hung up on a few inches of skin. While I don’t believe guidelines are a bad thing, kids like my brother created reasons for our high school to add new ones regularly, I believe there is a line. Girls should not be made to feel like the standards are only targeted to them, and no one should be made to feel like less of a person for their mistakes- the scrub style prison suit makes me cringe.

    The new school I just moved my son to has uniforms and my husband was sure our son would hate it. He loves it- it simplifies everything. As my daughter will be attending the school next year too I am so glad we won’t be having these issues about what she or any other kids are wearing to school- what they are allowed to wear doesn’t allow for this debate- it only makes me wince, since all the pants and shorts have pleats, and it is 2013.

  19. This is so tricky! Even for adults. There was once a lesson in RS about how to dress for church that was delivered in a very black and white, rule list-y manner that drove a sister to leave the room in tears (she was in pants). There are teens (male and female) I know who are not going to church because they get scolded for their appearance by leaders way more than they’ve been validated for their core selves. My daughter just asked if she could dye her hair an extreme color. (She’s 12.) I told her that I didn’t care, but I can’t protect her from how others respond to her for making that choice, so I invited her to imagine all the social consequences of doing that and accept those before taking action. (She has purple ends on her hair right now.) I have also talked to others who feel awkward around those who are pushing the boundaries and don’t know how to respond and feel uncomfortable and have trouble concentrating on their work, and don’t want to offend, so they just squirm a lot. Gently guiding people requires a ton of diplomacy, a show of respect for peoples’ feelings. Just enforcing rules without some finesse often results in treating people as if they have no feelings. If done wrong, it looks like prodding cattle into chutes.

  20. It sounds like the dress code is TOO much of a priority in this school. A little more low key enforcement would be good. However, the way I was raised, and the way I raise my children, I am never concerned about dress codes. When I was growing up, our family policy was stricter that any dress code. We had to have sleeves on shirts and dresses, and any shorts or dresses had to come to our knees. My mother did this because she was preparing us for the temple and I didn’t have to change my wardrobe one bit when I started wearing garments.

    Now I do the same for my 4 girls. I buy their clothes so whatever they pick has to be approved by me. I have no worries about what they are wearing because I know it is modest. I used to get “But it’s so cute!” and “Just this once!”, but they know the rules and we generally don’t have any problems.

  21. Uniforms suck. They are expensive, gender-biased, and ugly. They ARE nice for modesty and gang issues. I love the scrubs plan. The enforcing and phrasing and details need fine tuning. My solution for teachers: Just say, “You need to go down to the office for a dress code violation.” At the office, the kid stands next to a measuring stick while someone snaps a digital photo of them. The “violator” gets to look at the photo and either confirm or disprove that there was a violation. If the parents have problems with it, you have picture proof of the problem. If the dress code states, for instance, that skirts and shorts must be no more than 2 inches above the knee, then you tell the teachers on the down low to only send down kids that are wearing clothes that are clearly at least 4 inches above the knee. Regarding calling parents to come fetch their kids/bring different clothes, I know for a fact that many, many parents will not/cannot leave work to come to the school. Then what?

    Also, the first year of a new dress code is when it is enforced the strictest. It WILL tone down and even out. I will say, I do not agree with much of the poster’s school’s dress code.

  22. It seems to me that one solution would be to get so many students to violate the dress code at once that they would run out of scrubs. Or get a huge group of students to just wear scrubs to school, defeating the purpose of the scrubs of shame.

    I would seriously go to the school board over this one, and if that failed the media. Because it is wrong to single out the girls. And the cheerleaders shouldn’t get a pass just because they are cheerleaders.

  23. I am the educator that has to enforce the dress code that I had no part in making. I have to agree with comment 1. In interest of sanity I react to teenagers’ clothes only when what they are wearing makes teaching impossible and just sent them to the office for a dress code check. Sounds like some administrator is being pushed by a parent group or the district to make dress code such a focus. When mini-shirt were the rage one smart seminary teacher keep a set of little blankies that he handed out to the girls in the front rows with the comment just to save my eyes. Girls were not offended but understood that their dresses were too short. I must confess that there was one t-shirt that was so shocking that I verbally reacted only to be told by the administration is was just the name of a band.

  24. Oh my gosh, is this really what goes on in Utah?
    I confess to not reading the comments yet — I was so flabbergasted by your post, Shelah. Wow.
    Now I’ll go read what y’all think.

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