In Praise of School Dress Codes

I have a very vivid memory of sitting in American history class as a senior in high school and looking over at my friend Ali. She was covertly gesturing at the guy next to her who was wearing a tank top. We were in suburban Connecticut, not Florida–which is to say that tank tops were not exactly fashionable attire for males, even in the late-1990s. I didn’t know what all her gesticulating meant until she whipped out the Ani DiFranco lyrics she knew I would recognize. “PALE PURPLE!” I grimaced. She could see this dude’s nipple.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately. There seems to have been a rash of outraged blog posts and news segments about girls getting sent home from school–or being otherwise punished–for failing to meet their school’s dress codes. Some of the stories seem outrageous. Othertimes, some of the shorts actually do seem pretty short and if you knew what the dress code was, why didn’t you abide by it? Parents cry foul when their daughters are reprimanded for wearing short-shorts/skirts, spaghetti strap tank tops, and beyond. They gripe that boys aren’t “shamed” for their wardrobes–and that girls should not have to care whether boys are “distracted” by their bare skin. It would be easy enough to throw up my feminist hands and say, “Right on! Wear whatever you want, grrrrl!” But I feel like something important is being ignored in these discussions.

Ali and I probably would have appreciated a school dress code that kept us from having to get acquainted with other people’s nipples during a history lesson. But if the bloggers are to be believed, it’s mostly girls that the dress code police are cracking down on. Well, there’s an obvious explanation for that. Most boys are happy to wear long, baggy shorts and t-shirts to school. The more fashionable ones might squeeze into some skinny jeans, but the boys who are wearing anything remotely revealing are few and far between. Why? Because no one taught them that “being comfortable” with your body is synonymous with being willing to show as much of it off as possible at all times.

Parents of daughters, I ask you, how would you feel if your daughter came home from school and told you that every boy in school was suddenly wearing booty shorts and nipple-revealing tank tops? I bet you’d complain that it creates an inappropriate atmosphere for learning–especially among a bunch of hormone charged teenagers who are already distracted by a light breeze. Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter because no one is going to con boys into sacrificing utility and comfort for “fashion.”

Let’s take a break for a funny, yet informative video about how ultimately stupid women’s swimwear–and plenty of our regular clothing–is:

Here’s a line from a post about that video that I thought was pretty right on:

“I’m not saying I’m a great, uber-evolved dude or anything, but I have always been baffled by how women were talked into wearing modern-day swimwear. Actually, pretty much most of what they wear, but especially swimwear.”

Seriously, bro, you’re right. From high heels to thongs to skirts that you can’t sit down in  women have been sold a load of crap about what they should be wearing to feel “comfortable” with themselves. If you actually genuinely like any of these things, then go ahead girl, do your thing. But the next time you’re teetering around and griping about your feet (or standing in line outside of a club in January in a mini-skirt and heels with no coat in sight) ask yourself, “Who am I doing this for? Who taught me that this is how I should be dressing?”

Now let’s get back to school…

My brother just graduated from high school. When he was in middle school our town instituted not just a dress code but a partial uniform. Your shirts had to come from the school store–which mostly consisted of polos and button downs with the school logo–and your pants/skirts and shoes had to meet certain criteria (they had to be black or khaki). I’m not sure what the rule on shorts is. This works to level the playing field for kids with big income disparities, but it also cuts out all this dress code nonsense. If everyone is basically wearing the same shirt, then teens can go back to their normal level of self-conscious obsessing and constant distraction.

It’s time to accept that just like there is workplace appropriate attire, there is school appropriate attire–for both girls and boys. It’s clear that dress codes aren’t quite cutting it, so I’m going to go out on a fuddy-duddy limb and say uniforms are the answer. And maybe–just maybe–some of the girls will learn what the boys already know: It’s way better to be comfortable and have full range of movement than it is to look “hot”.

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