Why School Dress Codes Still Matter

School dress code shaming has gone viral.  Young women lately have been going to social media posting pictures of their outfit that the school deemed unfit to wear, usually with a story attached about how the school was slut shaming her for what she wore.  As a self-proclaimed feminist, I get it.  I really do.  No one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot put on your body, just like they don’t have the right to tell you what to do to your body, what you can and cannot put in your body, who you can and cannot love, etc.  I get it.  I also get that the message can come across as, “if you dress like a slut, people will treat you like a slut,” and when young girls dress provocatively young boys can’t help but to stare, and cat call, and rape.  This message is not what we should be sending to our young girls, nor should it be to our young boys.  And I agree that we need more of a focus teaching young men that it does not matter what a young woman wears or how she acts, you are still in control of your own actions and you have a choice of how you can treat that young lady.

But I did teach high school for two years, and middle school for two years after that, and I am a soon-to-be mom with a daughter who is going to have her own opinions on how she wants to dress.  I am also 26 years old, which though I have four years under my teaching belt still means I am one of the youngest teachers at the school, and I am also known as being one of the “coolest.”  I will admit that I am horrible at catching “dress code,” literally horrible.  If I actually notice a student in violation of dress code, it must be bad, like latex catsuit with cutout crotch bad.  For reals.  I have even been called up by administration and asked, “Did you not see StudentX’s tank top today in class?”  Whoops!  Both schools I have taught at had a dress code, and even though dress codes do vary from district to district and per grade level (Elementary vs. Middle vs. High, with High School generally having the most laid back rules), the dress code at my current school is pretty average:

Dress Code

The first sentence alone has a lot of meaning.  “The primary purpose for student dress and grooming standards is to foster an educational environment that is both safe and free from disruption in order to reflect an appropriate tone for school.”

1.  A dress code that is safe.  Believe it or not, there are a ton of wackadoos out there, trust me, I get parent emails daily from them.  And believe it or not, these wackadoos would send their 11 year old to school in 5 inch platform stilettos, and when she steps in a crack and breaks her ankle they are going to sue the school.  You laugh, but it is no lie.  Our school district currently has quite a few pending lawsuits, many for equally ridiculous things.  And notice, I did say “she” in the above scenario.  Because even though I fully support a man to wear whatever the heck he wants and I literally worship Drag Queens, in our society it is most likely going to be a girl who comes to school in heels.  It just is.  That isn’t sexist, it is just the reality of our society.  Maybe back in the day when Louis XIV and his peeps walked around in their heels and wigs that rule would have been more directed toward them, but now adays the roles have swapped.  The word “safe” could also imply mentally/emotionally safe, and bring in the need to eradicate gang attire.  This would also tie into the part of the dress code talking about wearing clothing with obscene symbols and language.  This is something I have seen at our school, with a boy wearing a shirt of a naked women riding a gun with marijuana leaves all around and the words “thug life” written overhead.  No lie.  (Not even sure I would have noticed that in my classroom, it was shown to me by another teacher.)  Some might see no problem with this shirt, but it could be offensive to others and since drugs and weapons are banned from school, I see the need to have this be a dress code violation.

2.  A dress code free from disruption.  These words are where most people have the most problems with school dress code.  What does the word disruption/distraction mean?  Many of the dress code shaming viral pictures mention talking to the principal (usually male) about how her clothes are a distraction towards men and therefore are against the rules.  This goes back to my opinions on this that I mentioned up above and how boys need to be held responsible for their actions.  As a young, “hip,” heterosexual female teacher, I am allowed to say that you know what, sometimes how a person dresses IS distracting.  To everyone.  Boys, girls, male teachers, female teachers, everyone.  This brings me to leggings.  News flash: 99.99% of leggings are see-through.  Yes, that is right.  Even the $100 leggings your mom also wears.  Sad thing is, women run around wearing them thinking they are cute and fashionable (OK, and comfortable) and they think they are being modest because they are completely covered up.  Even if you do the bed over test before leaving the house, did you do the bed over test in fluorescent lighting?  Natural lighting?  After the 50th wash?  At all?  Queen of oblivious to dress code violators even notice that while I am walking up the stairs with a young girl in leggings in front of me I can see everything from her pink Hello Kitty granny panties to her purple zebra print thong.  And yes, as a young, heterosexual female teacher it is distracting.  I don’t want to see your underwear.  I don’t want to see an 11 year old’s underwear.  Period.  Now imagine if I was a 13 year old boy with these new raging hormones that I don’t understand.  Again, I am NOT saying boys will be boys, because that is my least favorite saying ON THE PLANET, and I am not saying that boys have a right to make comments or cat call or rape because a girl decides to wear see-through pants.  But even to the sweetest, most respectful young man on the planet, sitting behind a girl for an hour in class as she bends over and shows the world her black lace thong is distracting.  Because they don’t understand their hormones.  Because they don’t understand why seeing this is making them feel happy in new places.  Because just a year ago he used to play on the playground with this girl who is no longer a girl.  Because it is uncomfortable and awkward.  Because of a lot of reasons.  None of which have to do with slut shaming or rape culture.  And you know what?  It is just as distracting for the girls sitting behind her.  Or the teachers walking behind her.  Now, I can’t forget about the boys.  Believe it or not, boys at my school get called for dress code almost as much as girls.  One district dress code rule they changed this year is tank tops, and yes even though girls were big violators of this rule, so were the boys.  Last year when it got hot the boys started wearing tank tops to class and it seemed like they had a contest to see who could wear the largest arm holes and show off the most of their chest.  And you know what?  It is distracting to see a boy’s nipples in class while I am teaching.  Not in a sexual way, but in an awkward way.  I don’t want to see an 11 year old boy’s nipples in class, just like I don’t want to see an 11 year old girl’s thong in class.

3.  A dress code that is appropriate for school.  When I look back at my 12 years (14 if you count pre-school and kindergarten) of public school, I really wish someone told me (not that I would have listened) that in the grand scheme of things, school doesn’t matter as much as you think.  The only time grades really matter is high school, and only for college applications.  Those AP and honors courses I spent countless all-nighters on didn’t matter.  If anything, they brought my GPA down.  (Because yes, they are weighted, but no one told me that 99% of colleges look at your unweighted GPA).  And you know what?  Busting my butt getting that 1 point extra credit when I already had a 98% in the class didn’t matter.  And that there was no point to cry over the chemistry quiz I failed because it was actually worth only 0.5% of my final grade.  As one of my new favorite jokes go, “What is the difference between an A student and a C student?  Nothing, they both become doctors (or the President, or your career of choice).”  Now I am not saying that school doesn’t matter at all, because look at me, I am a teacher for god sake and my entire life’s passion would be all for nothing.  Yes, I still test my students and demand they know the difference between covalent and ionic bonds, but really I just want them to leave my classroom with a deeper understanding (and hopefully love) of science as a whole.  When a new scientific study or world event happens one year, 10 years, down the road I want them to be able to have an educated opinion on the matter.  But really, education is more than just learning the ABCs and 123s, to me anyway, education is about preparing these young adults for the “real world.”  It teaches them how to interact with their peers in a healthy and beneficial way that they will have to one day do in the workplace.  It teaches them how to properly create their own opinions about the world and then defend their beliefs, and possibly even change their beliefs if something better comes along.  It teaches them time management and problem solving and how to delegate tasks.  And yes, it teaches students what is appropriate in our society and what is not.  Every society has it’s own rules and cultural norms for dress.  In some cultures it is expected that women show their midriff, while in other cultures both men and women walk around naked or with a simple leather strap covering most of the jewels, while in others women hardly ever leave the house at all, and when they do only their eyes can be exposed.  And though these cultures may be dying out and becoming more and more “Westernized,” they still exist.  In American culture, we have a work dress code, many of them are actually written in the bi-laws while others are just “norms.”  Like as a teacher, it would be completely inappropriate of me to wear pants you could see my underwear through, just like it would be for my co-worker to wear a “thug life” shirt with guns and boobs and weed, and most likely both of us would get fired, if not at least given a warning.  No lawyer would be taken seriously if he or she came into the court room in a tank top and flip flops.  Just like it would be hard for a presidential candidate to win with rainbow dyed spiked hair, 10 facial piercings, and a neck tattoo that says “bros before hoes.”  And yes, the cultural tide is shifting where tattoos and piercings and unique hair color are becoming more and more socially accepted.  Heck, I have a tattoo that covers a large portion of my back, but I still make sure it is covered when I go to work.  And I have known a few teachers with purple and green hair.  I am all for freedom of expression, if you want to walk around your house naked, or you want to walk around the mall in a panda costume or go to a party in a crotchless catsuit, go for it.  Honestly, I don’t care.  Do what makes you happy.  But I still think there is a place for “appropriate attire” in the workplace.  Call me old fashioned, take away my feminist card, I don’t care, but I honestly think that it is OK for there to be cultural norms on how to properly dress at work.  And to me anyway, these reasons have NOTHING to do with slut shaming or rape culture.  Just like I don’t feel comfortable seeing my student’s nipples and underwear, I also wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing my psychologist’s nipples and underwear, regardless of their gender.  So if school is really teaching our children how to interact in “the real world,” and if attire is so important in “the real world,” shouldn’t we be teaching that to our kids too?  Is it really that immoral to be telling our children they should be covering their nipples and underwear in school, when in just a few years they will be asked to do the same at their work?

Differences in Dress: On the left is my "work appropriate" outfit- dress that goes to my knees, high neckline, long sleeves, small heeled booties.  On the right is my "every day" look I wore to a concert- short white shorts, a semi-sheer spaghetti strap shirt, and not pictured, brown cowboy boots.
Differences in Dress: On the left is my “work appropriate” outfit- loose fitting dress that goes to my knees, high neckline, long sleeves, small heeled booties. On the right is my “every day” look I wore to a concert- short and tight white shorts, a semi-sheer spaghetti strap shirt, and not pictured, brown cowboy boots.

Dress is so important in any culture.  It in a way defines who we are, what we believe in, and what we want out of life.  The liberal feminist in me feels very passionate about self expression.  It is your body, do what you want with it.  But on the flip side, the teacher and mom-to-be in me feels that there is a time and place for true self expression.  Our professional and personal norms have been becoming more and more blended, and one day our society may feel that it is OK to wear literally whatever you want whenever you want to, but that time has not yet come.  Until that day comes, if we want to truly prepare our children for the world they will be dropped in to after high school graduation, we need to teach them every aspect of “being a productive member of society,” and that includes how to dress in a professional environment.


One thought on “Why School Dress Codes Still Matter

  1. Hi Vanessa – I LOVE your thoughts on Dress Code. The Gang attire rules are confusing. What is with the flannel shirt. I think it would be a heck of a lot easier if they just wore uniforms don’t you?


    Sent from my iPad


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