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School Dress Codes: Teaching Body Shaming to Young Girls

Dress code violation for wearing a “tank top”

Published in ChicagoNow, August 16, 2016

My nine-year-old granddaughter violated the dress code at her school that serves children in grades kindergarten through fourth. That means kids aged five through ten. Her violation was wearing what was deemed a tank top on a 99-degree day. I can assure you there was nothing suggestive about the top she wore and nothing about how she looked in it that was disrespectful or distracting to a fourth-grade boy.

What happened was totally humiliating to her. The teacher sent her to the school nurse. She was told to change out of her top and wear a white boy’s short-sleeved undershirt instead. She felt embarrassed to wear this t-shirt all day, marking her as a rule breaker, so she put her tank top over it. Thus, she was not only shamed, but also extremely hot and uncomfortable. Now, she asks every day if what she is wearing is acceptable and if she looks OK in it.

I’m not sure what the purpose of a dress code is for such young kids other than to make them feel ashamed of how they look or the clothing their families have purchased for them. In middle school, however, dress codes for girls become downright discriminatory. By that age, tight yoga pants, cropped tops, very short shorts, and close-fitting tank tops are, well, revealing for some girls. For the late bloomers, not so much.

And there lies the issue with dress codes. They punish girls who are more developed while their skinny sisters get away with wearing the exact same clothing. Last year, there was lots of anger at one of the middle schools in my community over this issue. Girls who were cited for violating the dress code, even if they were wearing the same thing as less developed classmates, were told they were too distracting to the boys. Plenty of parents questioned this message as body shaming their daughters, blaming the girls for the boys ogling them and making suggestive remarks. Of course, boys were told to pull up their pants and not show their underwear, but that was because it was disrespectful, not because they looked too sexy for their female classmates.

Dress codes are nothing new. I remember having the assistant principal prowl the halls of my high school with a yard stick because skirts had to be a certain number of inches from the ground. And no culottes, please (you can google that one). Boys had to tuck in shirts and wear belts. No jeans allowed for anyone, and Bermuda shorts could only be worn on special Fridays.

The difference was that the dress code of my youth all had to do with propriety and respect. No one suggested that a girl whose skirt was a bit too short was distracting boys. No body types were singled out as being somehow shameful.

It’s time to stop the body shaming and focus on a different kind of respect. Rather than blaming girls for distracting boys from their studies, we need to teach maturing children to be respectful of one another regardless of shape, size, and development. If we want students to show respect for their schools by dressing appropriately, then school uniforms may be the way to go. That levels the playing field – kind of. It still doesn’t solve the problem of the disparity of girls’ development.

In the absence of uniforms, schools need to use common sense. A nine-year-old girl wearing a sleeveless top on a hot day is hardly being seductive or disrespectful. And a well-endowed thirteen-year-old girl’s body was not created to distract her male classmates. If schools want to teach respect, they need to give the message that it is unacceptable to blame a girl for being more developed and thus too distracting for her male classmates. If schools want uniformity in how students look, they need uniforms, not dress codes.


by Laurie Levy
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