Here in suburban New Jersey, the leaves are changing color, and the air is crisp and cool. It is hard to imagine that a few months ago my now fleece-clad daughters were gearing up for summer vacation. As they sweated it out in steamy classrooms, so began the steady stream of announcements from their school in South Orange–Maplewood to cover up. In our district, like many others, enforcement of the dress code is an annual ritual — one aimed nearly exclusively at girls.
As a parent of three teens, I am accustomed to the routine. As I wrote in a June essay for Slate, my youngest daughter was dress-coded two years ago, when she was in sixth grade. Her offense: shorts that didn’t meet the school’s dress code (which requires that shorts and skirts must “reach to the fingertips of the extended arm”). She spent the day donning an oversize shirt to cover her body as a punishment.
Predictably, my article raised a lot of questions: Do I see what these girls are wearing? (Yes.) Would I dress that way for work? (No.) Do I think the school is entitled to set limits? (Yes.) Do I place my daughter above following the school rules? (No.) Trust me, I know the drill.
The rules applied across the country, however, go well beyond short shorts. For example, a school in North Dakota recently banned skinny jeans, leggings and yoga pants. What these examples tend to have in common is the targeting of girls — and not just of bare skin but of the female silhouette itself.
The trend has created a new front in the dress code wars. Refusing to be shamed, girls are instead raising their voices. They are demanding to be treated with fairness — as more than the sum of their body parts and more than a classroom distraction to boys. Students at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York, and Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, have recently walked out of classes, protesting strict and unfair dress code enforcement.
A group of girls from our community in South Orange have launched a social media campaign, #IAmMoreThanADistraction, on Twitter and Facebook. The hashtag has unleashed an outpouring of personal stories from their peers nationwide. The world is listening. Various domestic and international media outlets, including the BBC, “Good Morning America,” Le Monde and Al Jazeera America have featured the perspectives of these students and their parents.
The controversy has raised a key question for educators nationwide: What should an ideal dress code policy look like? In our New Jersey school district, a coalition of parents and students is working with district leadership to create a fairer policy. In June student-led advocacy forced South Orange Middle School to change its discriminatory swimsuit policy, allowing girls the option to wear two-piece suits to school swim events (which had been banned). This is a step in the right direction.
Schools must turn their attention to developing policies that do not shame girls or underestimate boys by assuming that they cannot be expected to behave appropriately around girls who show any skin.
But more needs to be done. Our coalition is seeking a change of perspective and focus away from the culture of punishment, blame and shaming and toward one of equality and respect. Our goal is to create a districtwide policy that ensures equal treatment of girls, including fair messaging to and expectations of boys. We hope to promote a healthy dialogue among students and faculty about sexism and stereotypes. In consultation with district leadership, we formed a task force this fall to help gather input from the community and provide feedback to and meet regularly with the local school board, district superintendent and school principals to establish a new, collaborative and appropriate dress code policy that will be in place by spring 2015.
These are some of the concerns and questions we have identified:
1. While gender neutral on paper, are dress code guidelines being implemented evenly? Do they take into account what’s practical, what’s comfortable, what’s affordable and what’s available at local stores? Are they in need of revision — or needed at all?
2. We believe that students should never be removed from instructional time because of his or her dress or appearance. Nor should they be shamed as in a Florida school, where the punishment to wear is a neon shirt emblazoned with the words “dress code violation.”
3. The school personnel must use a language that doesn’t shame (or distract) students when discussing dress code in announcements, emails or the classroom. For example, a superintendent at Noble High School in Oklahoma recently called dress code violators “skanks.” In a North Dakota school that banned yoga pants, clips of the movie “Pretty Woman,” which stars Julia Roberts as a Hollywood streetwalker, were shown in school, and female students were compared to prostitutes.
4. An educational component on dress codes could be included not only in health class but also in literature, history and social studies, allowing students to discuss issues of body image, expression, shaming, gender stereotypes and the influence of the media in hypersexualizing girls. (And an examination of the culpability of corporate America could be added as well. Why is it that the vast majority of girls’ shorts sold at Target stores, even for toddlers, are of lengths deemed too short?)
It is our hope that this process will help move past the simple and, quite honestly, insulting questions about why girls don’t just wear longer shorts or baggier pants. The truth is that this debate is not really about how high the hemlines or low the necklines happen to be this year. It is about discrimination and the damage done when we normalize the notion that girls — or at least their bodies — are nothing but a distraction to boys.
Schools must develop policies that do not shame girls or underestimate boys by assuming that they cannot be expected to behave appropriately around girls who show any skin. The shaming of the female form — and the blaming of girls for being girls, while excusing boys for being boys — are the real disruption to and, yes, distraction from the educational environment. And it must stop. The parents, students and administration of South Orange–Maplewood School District stand ready to lead the way.