Dress Code Dilemmas


This is a blog post I’ve been wanting to write for a while but it seems like another more pressing issue always takes precedence whenever I find time to write. However, I saw the below picture posted on social media recently & it inspired such conflicting feelings in me that I felt like I finally needed to make a go of it & delve into this complicated matter.

Before diving into the implications of the above picture, I’d like to first share some experiences that I gleaned from my own friends on social media this week. I’ll start with my own experiences & then paraphrase those of my friends.

I personally never got in trouble for a dress code violation. That’s principally because I would never have made it out of the house wearing anything that could have been a violation. My mom was a teacher so she knew the rules & wasn’t about to let me break them (which was wise of her). Secondly, because of how I was raised I wouldn’t have felt comfortable wearing anything that might have broken the dress code anyway. So for me it was effectively a non-issue. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it when I saw other people getting in trouble for dress code violations (some more egregious than others). And it certainly doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it many times over the years since middle/high school, perhaps even more so now that I have my own daughter’s future to think about.

What I will share from my own experience that I think is pertinent to this matter is a certain situation that happened every spring or early summer at my church. Every year as the weather warmed up, the pastor’s &/or youth pastor’s wife would take us teenage girls aside & tell us how important it was to dress modestly because we didn’t want to tempt the boys. We didn’t want to be a “stumbling block” to them. They may have meant well & I can’t say I’m angry at them for doing what they were probably instructed to do by their own husbands- whom they were conditioned to obey- but I must confess that I always found these conversations bizarre & uncomfortable. Furthermore, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized exactly what kind of damaging messages these kinds of conversations sent. The underlying message was “Boys can’t control themselves. If they harass you or hurt you, it’s your fault. You tempted them. Just be modest & nothing bad will happen to you.” Even as a teenager I picked up on these messages a bit & found them disturbing. I read several books about Afghanistan in high school & found myself thinking “These women are literally covering every inch of their skin at all times in public. You can’t even really see their EYES. And yet they still get harassed & raped.” So I knew, even then, that these messages didn’t totally add up with what I was seeing in the real world.

Now here is a list of some of the experiences my friends reported. These come from women who are now late 20s to 40s & who grew up in various parts of the country, so these are not just covering folks my own age or from my hometown. By the way, I’m using the term girl in these bullet points because while these people are now women, they were still girls when these events happened & I think that bears considering.

  • Several girls reported getting in trouble any time they deigned to wear shorts, particularly if they were on the taller side. But even some who were shorter had trouble with this. Several pointed out how hypocritical this seemed since cheerleaders were allowed to wear their cheer uniforms to school on game days & these showed far more skin than shorts. And any other outfit that wasn’t a cheer uniform but was equally showy wouldn’t have been allowed. (No one mentioned this but it just occurred to me that the shorts girls’ volleyball teams usually wear probably wouldn’t fit the dress code either. And yet they are given these shorts as if a prerequisite for playing volleyball as a female is having your ass hanging out. Hmmmm….)
  • One mom reported that she took two children in her family to school recently, one child being a boy & one being a girl. They had on the same length of shorts but only the girl was made to change clothes. So yes, this crap is still happening even 15-20 years after most of us graduated! (Insert massive eye roll.)
  • One girl got in trouble because her shirt had shrunk a bit in the dryer & her abdomen showed just a tiny bit when she raised her hand in class.
  • One girl reported a dress code violation for wearing a sleeveless shirt. Despite the fact that the straps met the required “3 finger” rule, she still got in trouble & was made to change.
  • Many reported that Confederate flag clothing was allowed & was quite popular. Others reported that Confederate flag clothing was technically against the dress code but was generally tolerated anyway (interestingly, most of this clothing was worn by boys, not girls).
  • Several reported that dress codes seemed to unfairly target black (or Hispanic) students with prohibitions against doo-rags, bandanas, beads, chains, etc.
  • One student got in trouble for wearing jeans with holes in them despite the fact that she was wearing leggings underneath so no actual skin was showing.
  • Several girls pointed out that curvier, more busty girls or girls with more proverbial “junk in the trunk” were far more likely to get in trouble for dress code violations even when wearing the same thing as other girls with “skinnier” figures. However, one girl reported getting in trouble for wearing leggings with a long shirt when she was less than 100 lbs & flat chested, yet another far curvier girl wore the exact same outfit & DIDN’T get in trouble.
  • On the same token, many reported that dress codes were not enforced equally. Students who were “popular” or who were related to a teacher or other “important” person in town were less likely to get in trouble for the wearing the same things that other kids with lesser status were punished for wearing.
  • Lastly, at the time of the violations, many girls reported feeling angry, frustrated, & unfairly targeted, particularly if it was an outfit they’d worn before without problems or if other students were wearing the same thing & not getting in trouble. Some reported still second guessing their choices of attire even today because of some of these situations. Many reported feeling like the message that was sent by these dress codes, & perhaps more importantly how they were enforced, was that girls were responsible for how boys treated them & that their education wasn’t as important as not distracting the boys.

Now, let’s examine the implications of that photo from the beginning of the post. I agree with almost everything in it. But when you get to the last line is where I run into trouble. Obviously I agree that we should be teaching boys not to view girls as sexual OBJECTS, & we absolutely should be teaching them that just because a girl is dressed a certain way does NOT mean that they are entitled to touch or harass her in any way. HOWEVER, the fact remains that we ARE sexual creatures- & that includes teenagers. While nowadays most of us agree that most teenagers are too immature to really handle the consequences of sex, the fact remains that for most of human history they weren’t regarded that way. It is biologically programmed into us- part of our DNA you could say- that we are inherently sexual creatures, just like any other mammal. And for most of human history that has started during the teenage years- & frankly still does for most, even if it’s under very different circumstances.

What I’m getting at is that in an ideal world women could wear however little (or much) they wanted in any situation & it would never change how they were perceived. But for better or worse we DON’T live in such a world & I’m not sure how realistic it is to say that women should be able to wear really provocative clothing in every situation in life. I’m not sure that the person who created that meme was saying that either. But I have certainly seen such arguments elsewhere. To be clear, I am in no way saying women are responsible for men’s bad behavior- no one gets raped because “she was asking for it, being dressed that way.” Absolutely not. Furthermore, I can definitely speak to situations in my own life when I received unwanted attention/harassment from men when I was NOT wearing anything particularly provocative at all. At the end of the day, much of this behavior isn’t about the women- it’s about the men & their own control/aggression issues.

Having said all that, I think it would be remiss not to mention that the way humans have evolved women are undoubtedly more often viewed as the objects of sexual desire. In many animal species, men are the more “interesting” gender visually- think about birds or lions for example. It is the males who have the brilliant colors or the mane. But in humans, men are much more visually stimulated by women’s bodies. That is not to say that women don’t enjoy looking at men- clearly we do- but there are far more magazines, porn, movies, strip clubs, etc with men as the intended audience than women. What I’m trying to get at is that women’s bodies ARE sexual, whether we like it or not. And as much as we might not like it, we are all selling ourselves in this world, both men & women. What I mean by that is that for better or worse the clothes we wear do send signals to those around us &- fair or not- this is particularly true for us women.

I’m always hesitant to make generalizations based on my own experiences because I realize they don’t necessarily represent the experiences of everyone else, but I’d be blind if I didn’t admit that the women I’ve known who’ve consistently dressed provocatively attracted a very different type of man than those who dressed a bit less provocatively. Do I think that’s “fair” or ideal? No, but it’s what I’ve observed & I think it would be unwise not to consider what this means. Again, I am not advocating for actual LAWS regarding what women can or can’t wear or that any woman should be shamed or looked down upon for her choice of attire. Nor should women be made to feel like harassment or rape are natural consequences of their own clothing. Absolutely not. Do I in fact wear things now as an adult that I wouldn’t have been allowed to wear to school or in my parents’ house? Yes, I do (though not to work of course). [For example, I wear shorter shorts than I’d have worn at home, & I wear tank tops or old cut up T shirts that sometimes show my bra straps. And while I don’t wear intentionally low cut shirts my figure is such that a lot of things become a bit low cut that weren’t necessarily intended to be. And had I had the same figure in high school maybe I’d have gotten in trouble then too. Anyway, I don’t feel uncomfortable or like I’m being overtly sexy in any of these outfits. I mean, none of my neighbors or men at Wal-Mart have yet prepositioned me.] Do I think that teenage boys or adult men are incapable of controlling themselves? No, we ARE animals but we are also MORE than animals. However, does that mean I will be encouraging my daughter to wear booty shorts & extremely low cut shirts on the daily? Absolutely not. But I will NOT be phrasing it as “You shouldn’t tempt the boys by dressing like that.” I will be saying something more like this instead: “Do you want the boys to notice you for your personality or just your body? They’re probably going to notice your body regardless of what you wear, but you can increase the odds of catching the attention of more decent boys (or girls) who actually care about you as a person if you avoid certain clothes.” My hope is that kind of phrasing won’t send any kind of damaging messages but will still be preparing her for the real world.

Now does any of this mean we should be punishing 6 year old girls for wearing short shorts? Absolutely not. They are CHILDREN. But when it comes to teenagers, biologically speaking they really AREN’T children anymore. So is there a place for dress codes in schools? I’m inclined to say yes, largely because it’s an environment meant for LEARNING & is basically the teenager’s equivalent of a job. And as adults most of us don’t wear provocative clothing to work because it’s just not the place for that, right? The question of course is where do we draw the lines? And how we do it in such a manner than we aren’t sending damaging messages to girls that their education isn’t as important as not distracting boys? How do we teach boys (& girls) that girls are more than their various “assets”? How do we raise boys to respect girls regardless of their choice of clothing? And whatever rules we agree on, how do we make sure that they are enforced equitably? (Also, can we make sure that we aren’t issuing uniforms for girls sports that would violate the dress code? Because that’s sending incredibly mixed messages.)

I don’t have the answers. I’m just trying to start a discussion here because this is a subject that is really difficult for me. I feel so conflicted because I can see good points on both “sides” of the issue (as with most things). I definitely got angry reading about many of my friends’ experiences as teenagers & getting in trouble for things that to me seem completely ridiculous. It’s not like any of them showed up to school in a bikini or a tube top & a miniskirt a la Britney Spears! It’s certainly disturbing to think that Confederate flags were often ignored- despite the fact that they were worn at least partly to intimidate black students- but girls’ legs were frequently deemed too sexy for school. Please. Let’s get our priorities straight here.

So what do you think? Does any of this make sense? Am I being sexist against my own gender? I’m really trying not to be but I’m also trying to be realistic & not fight biology here. Thoughts?