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School Dress Code Violations: You Want to Wear That to School?

TEEN | Julianna Manes

Every morning when I pick out an outfit, I go through the same process of walking downstairs to ask my mom if it is appropriate and wait for her to tell me to go change or reluctantly allow me to wear it. On the days my outfit is “iffy” (usually leggings or an off-the-shoulder top), my mom instructs me to bring a change of clothes just in case a super-strict teacher thinks my outfit has school dress code violations.

It’s not that I am trying to break the rules; it’s just that many of the clothes that are in style today don’t meet my school’s dress code. I own a few crop tops, denim shorts, corduroy skirts, rompers, ripped jeans, and off-the-shoulder shirts—basically, the identical outfits my mom and all of her friends wore in high school in the ‘90s. But for some reason, outfits that were okay to wear to school 25 years ago are considered “inappropriate” today.

Teens vs High School Dress Code Policies

I think it’s really unfair for girls wearing sleeveless or off-the-shoulder tops to get called out at school for being “too revealing.” What is so inappropriate about the upper part of the arm? Are teachers afraid that the boys in my classes won’t be able to pay attention because they can see my shoulders? It really doesn’t make any sense.

I don’t choose these particular outfits for any reason—not to make a point, be rebellious, or impress anyone. Honestly, I only wear them for myself because I like the style, and because I feel pretty and confident in them. I still try to be respectful of my parents’ wishes and always pair my crop tops with high-waisted jeans, wear shorts under my skirts and dresses, and never wear tops that show off cleavage. But there are still times my mom and I don’t agree with what is appropriate, and secretly I wish she would loosen up just a little bit.

I know that my mom is only being overprotective because she doesn’t want me to get in trouble at school or for people to think badly of me. But, I also feel that teenagers aren’t really given enough credit or the chance to make our own decisions. We need to be allowed to express ourselves, especially when it’s about something pretty safe like fashion. I wish adults today didn’t make such big deals about innocent things.

Julianna Manes is a high school freshman. Her favorite things include Broadway musicals, going to concerts (especially Panic! at the Disco), and all things related to makeup and fashion.


MOM | Yvette Manes

“Mommy, does this look okay?” It’s a question I get almost daily from my 15-year-old daughter, Julianna, about her outfit. Typically, it refers to a pair of shorts that might be slightly shorter than I would prefer, or a top that, if worn with jeans of the non-high-waisted variety, would expose an inch of midriff. Leggings are another point of contention: Are they or are they not pants?

If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I’d become the clothes police, I wouldn’t have believed them. We live in Florida, the state where I was born and raised. Other than an unfortunate period in middle school when “Jams” shorts were in style, teenagers here have always worn short-shorts, flip-flops, and crop tops. But, over the last few years, stricter school dress codes and opinionated parents have made me second-guess what I allow my own Floridian teen to wear.

It started when she was about 8 years old. We were on vacation when a parent at the pool complimented my daughter’s tankini. She then proceeded to tell me that her own daughter wasn’t allowed to wear two-piece swimsuits until she was 13. I was annoyed and slightly offended, but must confess that I didn’t let Juli wear that two-piece again for the rest of the trip.

Why Dress Code: Am I Too Permissive?

When she started middle school, there was a big dress code meeting. For boys: No saggy pants. For girls: No tank tops, no shorts more than 4” above the knee, no leggings, no exposed shoulders, no cleavage, and no midriff. Half of Juli’s existing wardrobe was out, and the only shorts that met dress code made her look like a delivery truck driver. The subliminal message was clear: “Girls need to be covered up and frumpy in order to receive an education.”

Intellectually, I knew that this was ridiculous, but a part of me began to wonder if I was too permissive when it came to her wardrobe. Maybe those shorts are too short. And, those exposed shoulders? Maybe they would put her in danger or keep her from learning. So, little by little, I became that mom.

Now in high school, the dress code is slightly more lax. But, those mornings when she walks out the door wearing an off-the-shoulder top and looking stylish as heck, I can’t keep myself from wondering if I should’ve sent her back to her room to change.

Yvette Manes is a freelance writer and a mother of two teenagers. She loves binge-watching TV, listening to audiobooks, and singing along to showtunes in the car.


EXPERT | Peggy Orenstein

I sympathize with Yvette and Julianna’s skepticism about school dress codes. There are good reasons to consider what kids wear to school. But unfortunately, the reason given for girls to “cover up” is most often that they “distract boys.” That is unsupportable. Boys are responsible for their behavior and reactions. They should not be entitled to comment on girls’ bodies regardless of what girls wear. Not ever.

They should not be the arbiters of what clothing is acceptable and what makes a girl fair game and what means she is “asking for it.” Not if we want to change the culture so that our daughters won’t have to say #metoo. And really, where, exactly, is that line? Is it when a girl wears a knee-length skirt? An ankle-length skirt? A burqa? As every woman knows, you may be catcalled, harassed, or groped, no matter what you wear.

To that extent, protesting the policing of girls’ bodies and dress is important. With this in mind, Yvette and Julianna could consider petitioning for a different kind of dress code.

Empowerment?

However, there’s another side to this, and it seems that Yvette is sensing this in her reluctance to let Julianna wear just anything. Today’s girls are encouraged to self-objectify and self-sexualize—to define themselves from the outside in rather than the inside out, to view their bodies as the objects of others’ desires and judgment—at ever-younger ages and to call that “empowerment.”

However, in its landmark 2007 report on the sexualization of girlhood, the American Psychological Association linked self-objectification to poor self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, self-harm, and compromised cognitive function. So, simply making the “right to bare arms!” into a feminist rallying cry can be a trap.

Where does that leave parents and schools? With a mandate to educate—not stigmatize—students. Telling girls to “cover up” just as puberty hits teaches them that their bodies are inappropriate, dangerous, violable, and subject to constant scrutiny and judgment, including by the adults they trust. It also does not help them understand the culture’s role in their wardrobe choices.

Wardrobe Choices

For Yvette and Julianna and other families locked in this dilemma, there’s a great article about dress codes on the SPARK web site, as well as lots of opportunity for your daughter to get involved with a girl-led, girl-positive movement. Among the “Universal Dress Code Rules,” it suggests that students have input into their school dress codes.

That’s a great place to start the discussion, but, really, if we want our girls to have true power and pride, we have to get beyond the “Is she basic or is she a slut?” conversation and talk about the mixed and often harmful messages about body and beauty that bombard girls. That starts with discussing all of these issues frankly with our daughters—and our sons.


Peggy Orenstein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Her book of essays Don’t Call Me Princess will be published in February.