It's back to school season which means that schools are refreshing their handbooks, and students are hitting the store for the perfect first day of school outfit. Just remember to check the dress code before you fall in love. While boys can easily pick out a few pairs of shorts, shirts, and maybe some jeans, girls will spend hours crawling through the store, aisle by aisle, looking for something that might not get them sent to the office, or, worse, sent home.
For many tween and teen girls, back to school comes with plenty of anxiety before you realize that the school wants you to wear clothes that simply don't exist. For some it causes mere frustration, for others, it can create a real problem. Lower income families quite literally can't afford to make a wrong move when buying new clothes for back to school. If the item might get flagged, it's not bought because clothes are expensive and not being able to wear the shirts you bought to school because they're not tight enough around the neck is too big of a risk.
Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to replace items that don't make the cut, finding clothes that fit the bill is still nearly impossible. If you walk into a girls or women's clothing store, you'll realize rather quickly that there are only so many stylistic choices. Girls shorts are short. Girls jeans are tight. Leggings are a staple in life, and shirts have a variety of sleeves and necklines that might show a collerbone, shoulder, or back while still covering the chest. Loose jeans or bottoms that go to a girl's fingertips (a very subjective measurement) are nearly impossible to find. Schools ask girls to show up in clothes that simply don't exist for them even though there are plenty of options that are sufficiently professional and conservative for school. Clothing makers don’t read the handbook.
I challenge the administrators who make these rules to go to any popular and affordable clothing store for young women and pick out a week's worth of outfits that are appropriate for the weather and for school within their rules. I'm dubious about how many will succeed.
And once the first day rolls around, you have to show up whether you've won the clothing lottery or not. Dress code seems to be the highest enforced code violation in high school, and so you find yourself in the office having the beg to go back to class because you're wearing black leggings, jogging shorts, skinny jeans, or a spaghetti strap top that fully covers you. Not only do you miss valuable class time that puts you behind, you're listening to a lecture about how your clothes are inappropriate or provocative or distracting to your male peers. And you're trying not to vomit or yell in frustration.
I know this reality well, and I know what it's like to stare into your closet on the verge of tears because you know that, come morning, you'll start fighting the losing battle all over again. Dress codes are a great way to make bright students lose their way to learn. Once you've violated the dress code once, there's a bull's eye on your back so that even when you are within the dress code you get called out in front of your peers to demonstrate that fabric does touch the tips of your fingers when your arms hang by your side.
If I could say one other thing to school administrators, I'd ask them to look me in the eye and swear their polices did not disproportionately target the young women. Every one who did would be lying because every regular item of clothing for boys fit the rules by coincidence. School dress codes are a way to police the female body and reiterate a few harmful, sexist messages. First and foremost, it promotes the idea that your clothing is an invitation for unwanted looks, advancements, harassment, or assault. Is that what we really want to teach in school? That girls need to cater to not distracting their males peers and that we shouldn't "tempt their self control" by wearing shorts because it's ninety degrees out? Second, it promotes the warped idea that what you wear determines your value as a person. Because I sometimes like wearing bold lipstick or shorts or the occasional crop top, I'm a less intelligent person than if I wore slacks and a turtle neck? We should stop promoting the idea that how you like to express your style is an indicator of IQ or a desire to be provocative because with teens looking to express their individuality and creativity, that couldn't be farther from the truth.
This isn't to say the rules don't affect boys as well. Though clothing is easy, they get no say in how they keep the hair that grows out of their face. Just like I cannot help the way my body looks, they can't stop their hair from growing.
Schools use dress codes as a way to exert control and gain power, when, in reality, the opposite happens. Given free reign, most teens dress entirely appropriately for today's society in their day to day life. It is their parent's job to decide what's appropriate and what's not. Giving overly restrictive and archaic rules the stage an attack on the students makes them lose their will to learn along with their will to follow other, more important rules. Maybe we should start thinking about what really matters to the learning environment, because having a bright guy drop out of school over his pony tail and a girl who's near paralyzed with fear about getting called out for every outfit she owns isn't improving student learning or concentration. I guarantee you, the teens who step out of the dress code aren't doing it out of spite or animosity or to look sexy. We're just trying to express ourselves or get through the day.
Schools should consider taking a cue from the district in California that has reduced their code to simply no profanity, drug or violent imagery, and your private areas must be covered. Make up, any hair length, leggings, crop tops, and colored hair are all aloud, and I will tell you with full confidence that the school will not fall to anarchy. Likely, it will thrive because when clothing is not a spotlighted issue, it fades into the background of learning, friendship, and self discovery that high school is supposed to be about. So maybe we call all encourage our local schools to leave bullying their students out of the rulebook, and we can all work for happier, more inclusive school environments because high school is hard enough without feeling like you can’t even get dressed in the morning.
To all the awesome teens who are getting ready to head back to school, I wish you good luck with your grades, your friendships, and in expressing your creativity. Being unique is never something to be ashamed of, and don’t let anyone bring you down for it. Be proud of who you are.