How to Talk to Your Kids About the Dress Code: Part I

by Tori Nevel, intern at WISE, Lebanon, NH 

Every spring, my high school principal would send a letter to girls’ homes that stated, “As weather starts to heat up, don’t forget to cover up.” And every spring, dozens of girls would be sent to the office for dress code violations.

The story is not unique to me. My sister has been called down to the office for wearing shorts above her fingertips, my mother for shorts above her knee, my grandmother for pants instead of a skirt, and I’m sure if my great-grandmother were still alive she would be recounting the story of getting in trouble after her ankles were exposed under her skirt. The story is also not unique to New England, the United States, or even the Western world – dress codes exist almost everywhere, just in different forms.

I’ve talked a lot about girls here, but I just want the parents of boys to know that this post is just as important if not more important for them.

This is not to say that dress codes are all bad, or don’t serve a purpose, but there seems to be some common pitfalls, so here’s how to avoid them.

  1. It has nothing to do with ‘respecting yourself’

Telling girls (and not boys) to “respect themselves” by covering up is a line with the underlying assumption that for girls, to be sexual or perceived as sexual is to not respect oneself – which is both untrue, and sexist. We are also assuming that the clothes one is wearing directly relates to their sexual activity. The next step in this line of thinking is victim blaming rape survivors by asking, “what were you wearing” after an assault against them.  This teaches girls that they are responsible for other people’s behavior based on the consumption of their bodies, and that they are never safe because in any environment they may be open to comments, judgment, or violence because of the bodies they live in. This also teaches boys that there are some people who deserve respect and others who
don’t, and that this is based on how those people look. We can instead reinforce that every human deserves respect, no matter what they look like, because they are a fellow human on this earth.

  1. It’s not about ‘protecting yourself’

Women and men are sexually assaulted in all manner of dress. Telling girls to ‘protect themselves’ by covering up makes it seem like men merely glance at someone they find attractive and are overwhelmed by the unstoppable need to rape. Obviously foolish. Rapists aren’t overcome by the sight of shoulders, but they do use this myth to assume that people will be more likely to blame the victim for what they were wearing, and therefore more likely to get away with it.

This excuse teaches girls that if they are catcalled or raped by men, it is their fault for not “protecting” themselves by covering up. When we tell girls to be safe by covering up, we are assuming that rape is preventable if women do the “right” things to protect themselves. This implies that the burden of preventing rape is on the victims, not the perpetrators who actually raped.

  1. It’s not ‘distracting others.’

Unless your shirt has a strobe light and disco music pumping out of it, your outfit is not a distraction. This reinforces the message that female bodies only matter in relation to how men feel about them – when we take girls out of class or send girls home for violating the dress code we send the direct message that her education is not important, or at least not as important as the boy’s education which she’s supposedly preventing.

Fun fact: boys aren’t mindless sex-crazed idiots. Boys have self-control. We should expect it from them. The “boys will be boys” attitude puts the responsibility of the boys’ attention span on girls.  We assume boys can’t control themselves so we burden girls with countless rules in order not to distract them when we should simply be telling boys to pay attention.

  1. It might be about what’s culturally appropriate

While what is considered “appropriate” is not universal or timeless, appropriateness can be part of being polite. Clothing standards are like table manners and differ from place to place – countries or regions have different standards – and is considerate to be informed, aware, and attempt to adapt when in Rome.

  1. It might be part of how you present yourself to the world

You wouldn’t wear pajamas to work, right? And while a swimsuit is perfectly acceptable on the beach, it’s not in a 5-star restaurant. Explain to your kids that different dress codes apply to different places depending on how you want to present yourself in that space and what is appropriate for that place. School is about learning and education for the future, first and foremost. Remind your kids that getting ready in the morning for school – much like you get ready for work – is getting ready for a productive day.

At the same time, clothes are an important way that we can express ourselves in the world, and this can be fun, creative, and also stressful. Some school policies enforce gender roles by not allowing students to wear clothes meant for the ‘opposite sex.’ For example, girls may be told that they cannot wear pants to prom and boys may be told they cannot wear makeup or nail polish. We should be encouraging – not punishing – children who are using their dress to work against harmful stereotypes or even just having some fun.  Paying attention to your child during these times is especially important. Listening to your child and allowing your child to be themselves as much as possible. Be proud of them for their capacity to experiment.

  1. It might be about comfort

This may be an opportunity to take away from the idea – particularly with girls – that getting dressed is a competition in social status. Instead, dressing should be one of the ways that we care for our bodies by honoring comfort and function over fashion. This might include you encouraging your child to think about what they are most comfortable in, and what facilitates the ways they use their bodies every day.

There is so much to say about the implications of dress codes. What else should we be thinking about? Check back in to the YATF blog in a couple weeks for Part II with five more pitfalls and conversations tips!