Recently, while scrolling through Facebook, I came across an angry post from a mother in Hamilton County complaining about proposed changes to the dress code for the schools in Fishers. Some of the changes included;
- Shorts, dresses, and skirts should be no higher than mid-thigh. They specify that the clothing items should be longer than the student’s fingertips when their arms are by their side.
- No underwear garments must be visible.
- Shorts or briefs should be worn with a skirt or dress.
- Slips must be worn with all dresses/skirts.
- Sleeveless athletic jerseys are only allowed if worn over a t-shirt.
Growing up in Ireland at the end of the last millennium meant I attended a school in which a uniform was mandatory. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and we were expected to represent our school in a certain way, which included uniform standards such as a skirt (it was actually a pinafore to ensure we could not roll up our skirt) that was below the knee and thick black tights in all types of weather from summer to winter. Uniforms are standard in Ireland in all schools. My mother wore a uniform in the 1960s. Her standards were much stricter than anything I endured. It was enforced that they all wore school-approved briefs under their skirts. The nuns in her school would intentionally look up each girl’s skirt as they walked upstairs to ensure they wore these briefs. They were also intermittently forced to kneel on the bare hardwood flooring to ensure their skirts were longer than knee length.
The crux of the problem with dress coding is that it disproportionately affects girls more than boys. Girls have been subjected to harsh rules, including being sent home to change (essentially missing out on their education), detention, or missing out on prom. This disproportionate bias can have an extremely destructive effect on our daughter’s confidence and self-esteem (Zhou, 2015).
I’ve heard the argument repeatedly that the dress code is standard once a young adult enters the world of work, so it is important in school. I would argue that the dress code of the schools I attended was much stricter than anywhere I have worked. As a student, I worked in a high-fashion French boutique-styled clothes shop. I was never penalized for not wearing a slip under my super-mini skirt or asked to go home as my tiny teenage midriff showed. As a 20-something working in a fast-moving corporate environment, it was common to see women in high-powered positions wear figure-hugging dresses, skirts above the knee, or (gasp!) cleavage. In any of these cases, the women were never blamed for distracting the men from their work or sent home to change. So why are we enforcing these rules on vulnerable and impressionable girls?
The problem with dress codes is that they are usually enforced for ‘modesty.’ In my experience, when debating dress codes enforced in schools, the bottom line comes down to not distracting boys from their studies. Of course, there are many flaws with this argument. The first is that we are lowering the standards expected from our sons. Are we comparing them to animals without control over their physical urges? Also, we are lowering the educational value of our daughters. Sending a school girl home because her shoulders are uncovered tells her that her education is not as worthy as the boy who was going to be distracted by her shoulders.
I’m not against the dress code, but I feel that in this day and age, policing school wear should not be a priority. It should not be discussed at a school board, and I don’t believe girls should be sent home to change. I also find it hard to understand how any teacher will police young girls wearing ‘slips’ under their dresses without physically having to look up their skirts. Indeed, this puts the teacher in danger of being accused of acting inappropriately. I would certainly file a report if my daughter told me a teacher was looking up her skirt. (This is all without answering the question of where one would buy a slip in this day and age?)
Surely, the modesty expected from girls in the 1950s and 60s is a thing of the past. In the hot heat of the summer, young girls and boys should be allowed to show their shoulders if it makes them more comfortable. Girls should be allowed to wear a mid-thigh skirt without worrying about a slip, certain school-approved briefs, or the mortification of a teacher having to creep under there to make sure they are ‘appropriate.’ And in today’s world, where every opinion is divided, and teachers have to deal with under-par pay and controversy (along with harassment) in everything they do and say, dress codes should be the least of our worries. Let’s keep the focus on educating our children and preparing them to be responsible and accountable adults.