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Finally, A School Dress Code That Respects Students

Published in ChicagoNow, August 28, 2017

I took my granddaughter who is entering middle school shopping to buy a “first day of school outfit.” She’s eleven and starting sixth grade today, with temperatures projected to be just under 80 degrees. I understand that her school’s dress code gives a thumbs-down to Daisy Duke shorts and I’m okay with that. But we could not find a pair of shorts that met the requirement that they be longer than her fingertips.

Because she is thin and still wears girls’ sizes, everything we tried was a fail. Finding a top was also tough. She rejected shirts with obnoxious or too-cute saying on them, but had to pass up the style that is most popular (for reasons that escape me) these days – shirts with cut out shoulders. I knew tank tops were also out. Last year I wrote a post Teaching Body Shaming to Young Girls: School Dress Codes. It described how my then fourth-grade granddaughter was dress coded and humiliated for wearing a tank top with wide straps that revealed absolutely nothing.

Because of my granddaughters, I am more familiar with girls’ clothing issues, so that’s my focus for now. Also, I think girls are more singled out than boys, demeaned by the unfair notion that they are responsible for distracting their male peers from learning by dressing provocatively. I have yet to see a middle school dress code that asks boys to be responsible for their responses to what the girls wear.

This eleven-year-old would be dress coded at my local middle school because her shorts don’t reach below her finger tips

In case middle schools haven’t figured this out yet, the girls who attend them are extremely self-conscious about their changing bodies. Those who look more mature feel just as awkward as those who wish they looked less like grade school kids. So, what do most schools do to girls this age? They body shame them and blame them for “distracting” boys. Things have not changed much since sixty years ago when my principal used a yard stick to measure how many inches my skirt was from the floor. Totally humiliating.

My community’s high school finally wrote a dress code that makes sense for 2017. The Evanston Township High School (ETHS) student dress code is based on respecting students and setting meaningful standards for acceptable school attire. It calls for basic decency in covering what my grandkids call private parts. Instead of focusing on whether a girl may wear a tank top on a hot day or on how long her shorts are relative to the length of her arms, or if her bra strap is showing, it protects students’ and parents’ rights to take responsibility for what kids wear to school.

The main criteria are that “student attire does not interfere with the health or safety of any student, that student attire does not contribute to a hostile or intimidating atmosphere for any student, and that dress code enforcement does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group based on race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income, or body type/size.”

Here’s what every student must wear:

  • A shirt with fabric in the front, back, and on the sides under the arms

  • Pants/jeans or the equivalent (that includes leggings and shorts)

  • Shoes

Hats, facing either way, religious headwear, and hoodies are fine as long as the student’s face is visible. So are yoga pants, skinny jeans, tank and halter tops, and athletic attire. It’s fine to have waistbands and straps of undergarments showing as long as those private parts are covered.

The list of prohibited items makes sense: no violent language or images, no images depicting drugs or alcohol, no clothing sporting hate speech, profanity, or pornography. In short, students may not wear anything “that creates a hostile or intimidating environment based on any protected class or consistently marginalized groups.”

Shaming students in front of their peers for suspected violation of the dress code is also outlawed. But my favorite part of the ETHS dress code is that it makes students and staff responsible for managing their own personal “distractions” without feeling the need to regulate what other students wear.

This is an important message for the countless middle and high school girls who have been humiliated because their clothing or their bodies distract the guys. It is also an important message to boys. Girls are not objects that exist to be leered at, nor are they an excuse for not concentrating on their studies. Boys are responsible for being respectful and managing their own behavior, regardless of a girl’s body type or attire.

It seems like middle schools are the worst offenders when it comes to dress codes that shame girls for what they wear. If tank tops or shorts are so offensive to the administration that they must create humiliating rules for student attire, then have the kids wear uniforms. Otherwise, I suggest those who create these dress codes take an eleven-year-old girl to a store like Target or Justice and find reasonably priced clothing that complies with their rules. Good luck.


by Laurie Levy
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