These weeks going back to school bring out a lot in many of us. There are disputes about car line drop-offs: dotted with snarky remarks about “if your snowflake needs one last hug” and “tuck and roll, kids!”. There are issues with the real-time sharing of images and names of our tinies on school websites- fight spearheaded by amazing human Meg Bailey that was given immediate attention.
But inside the halls of dance academies I hear parent after parent complain of some ridiculous dress code rule that they don’t agree with- and that’s the end of it. I hear a mom talk about her 14-year-old not being allowed to wear mascara to school, actually getting a phone call about it. When it comes up, she says that in high school they will be allowed to wear it but, right now, in middle school, they cannot. This is a strange little rule to me. Why would a school allow a child to adorn their body essentially only after they have gone through puberty? And how do we not recognize that this stems back hundreds of years to a time where you can wear make up to market yourself for marriage? This lesson literally is: you can put make up on as soon as we are okay with sexualizing you.
It goes further, though. The same parents arguing say that they understand dress codes because it prepares you for the future. What future is that? Because as far as I know, I can wear a bra and a mini skirt to the same restaurant where I wear a pantsuit. Adults are fully responsible for their attire- from hair to make-up to shoe. We learn that what we wear communicates something. We learn that what we wear can influence the way people take us in- not that it should. Clothing gives clues about a person’s personality. My “resist” tee is as much a message as a $300 Black House White Market romper, each one setting up the arena in which we negotiate boundaries, expectations, personalities. I don’t get to choose what color scrubs I wear at work, she says. But she does get to quit. Or risk getting fired. We do, in fact, have the choice of putting on whatever we want. We are not free from the consequences, but we can choose it. And kids in a school their parents picked and pay for are not given that same freedom to “prepare them for the future”.
Another mom says that she thinks dress codes are tough (heavily enforced) in middle school and not once you get to high school. She says that kids starting puberty go a little crazy and that stricter boundaries are probably good for that. This concept is interesting to me. Who was the teacher who said that wild actions deserve smaller margins? Is this based on some Freudian model of self-control as sublimation from the chaos of the subconscious? I am not saying it is not helpful to reel in someone who is acting in ways that are strange or wild, I am saying I don’t know if it is. And the fact that it is accepted without question, seems a bit off to me. What would it be like if the kid that is wearing shorts over pants and a bra with no tee shirt was simply told: “well that’s a crazy outfit!”, and that was the end of that? Who is really being damaged if we let kids choose how to decorate themselves, at an age when it is easy and comfortable and safe; at an age where, really, dressing out of the norm is the blossoming of a special type of courage we are trying so hard to instill in them? Perhaps the kids more likely to grow into adults that ask for the promotion, or reframe the company’s issues into solutions, or fight against injustice, are the ones that put on the outfit no one liked. Who benefits from us believing that this is the proper course of action?
The idea that crazy outfits are a distraction- albeit more often narrated in the dialogue of boys not focusing because a blossoming bosom is nearby- is also a valuable lesson we are leaving on the table. If the idea is to "prepare them for the future" then, ummm, aren't there cleavages in most work environments? Aren't there people with extreme facial disfigurement that make it hard to pay attention to what the person is saying? Newsflash: life is full of distractions. You actually have to learn to navigate them in order to be successful and, really, not a jackass. There is no form of distraction that isn't already a part of life.
The concept of modesty in school is rooted in the belief that if we make women wear more conservative clothing, they are less likely to get raped. The reality is that placing the blame of a crime on the victim is not only damaging for our culture, but technically wrong. Women showing more of their skin do not get raped at higher rates than those who don’t. In fact, prudish and shy women tend to be raped more often. University of Ohio even put on a display that shows outfits that rape victims were wearing during their attacks (https://sapec.ku.edu/what-were-you-wearin). It’s time to cut that idea out of our schools and frankly, out of our minds.
I urge you to consider what is the real lesson behind dress codes. The only one I can irrefutably argue for is that our kids are being taught that people who dress “this way” are not worthy of an education, are not welcome here, and are, therefore, not valuable. You don’t have to put it into words to recognize that this is the lesson we are giving. No doubt, the very root of he-was-wearing-a-hoodie and what-was-she-wearing. Dress codes are the building blocks for the misogyny and racism we are working so hard to break down. And staying silent because “it doesn’t affect your child” is the worst kind of by-stander effect. Snap out of it.