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

by Tori Nevel, intern at WISE, Lebanon, NH 

Anyone with young people in their lives is likely to face challenges in supporting their kids in making choices about their appearance. School dress codes are established with the assumed intention that they will foster appropriate decision making around clothing choices. Unfortunately, dress codes often perpetuate the sexualization of girl’s bodies. If you haven’t had a chance to read Part I (see below) of this series, we recommend that you do. Part II is picking up right where we left off, with more pitfalls and conversation starters around dress codes.

  1. It might be a lesson in focusing on people’s thoughts and actions, not appearance

Disregarding people because of how they look is not only a disservice to them, but also to you and all you may have missed from getting to know others. Encourage your child to get to know people and what they can learn from them, rather than judging a book by its cover.

  1. It might be an opportunity to talk to your son

Oftentimes, dress codes are both written, and enforced much differently for boys and girls.  While girls are sent home or humiliated for showing too much shoulder, what about boys wearing shirts saying “cool story babe, now go make me a sandwich” or “if you can read this you should get back in the kitchen” (both seen in my high school, both allowed to remain in class).  Hold your son to the same standards as your daughters in terms of the presence they have in school, and make sure he’s not wearing clothes that are rude or devaluing others.

While boys may be viewed as funny for breaking the dress code, girls have their moral integrity questioned. I’ve heard a lot of people say that girls are “sexualizing themselves.” But we know that some people treat women like sexual objects no matter what they’re wearing. I’ve see women who are completely covered from head to toe being catcalled. A girl in my middle school class was the target of jokes simply because she hit puberty before others, which she had no control over. In Henry County, Georgia, a mother was told that a skort with tights underneath was “too sexual.” Her daughter was in kindergarten and only 6 years old. There is clearly a problem when we believe that 6-year-old girls can be sexual, when we sexualize female bodies to such an extent that they cease to be children. So teach boys (and girls) that girls are not sexual objects that need to be covered up, or that people’s appearance is more important than their humanity. Teach boys to respect and appreciate women’s accomplishments. Stop saying “boys will be boys” and guide your children as they develop self-control, empathy, and compassion.

  1. It might be an opportunity for action

Is your child attending a school or atmosphere that judges people unfairly based on how they look? Is your child angry about it? Help them channel that frustration into action that could help influence policy and create change. What an amazing opportunity to use their strategies, social media, and influence to make the world a more just place to be.

  1. It is time to lead by example

It’s pretty self-explanatory. There’s nothing angsty teens (or adults, for that matter) love to hate more than hypocrisy from their parents, so do what you say. Don’t make comments shaming other girls or women for what they wear, especially in the media. Instead, focus on these women’s accomplishments so that your kids can see that a woman is worth more than her outfit. Don’t talk about boys as thugs for having their pants further down than you’d be comfortable with, smile and wave and go about your day.

  1. It is important to Listen

Your children may very well have a very good reason to complain about dress code and/or the way they are being treated based on their appearance. It is important to listen and believe them. Sometimes they wear leggings because they are much more comfortable than skinny jeans, sometimes they wear shorts because their school is 90°F without A/C in mid-June, sometimes they are dressing like what they see on TV or among their peers because they want to fit in, sometimes they are being unfairly targeted by school administrators because of their body type – sometimes dress codes are unfair. Be willing to listen to and strategize solutions with your child.