Dress Code Not Stress Code
By Camille Devincenti
When I was middle school, girls would be forced to put on baggy, used t-shirts from the local “Help the Homeless” walk if they violated dress code. I was one of these delinquents, and people would stare me down as I did the walk of shame from the school’s office to my next class wearing the infamous grey t-shirt.
My experience in middle school left a negative impression of dress codes on me, which I feel institute sexist messages in schools and restrict creative expression. I am not against all dress code rules, but I believe that many of them must be eliminated and the way they are enforced in schools must be improved.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, dress codes are “formally or socially imposed standards of dress.” The purpose of dress codes in schools is to make sure that everyone is dressed appropriately for school and is not distracted from learning. However, some of the rules in school handbooks are absolutely ridiculous. I will be deriving examples from the handbook of the middle school I attended, Alice Deal Middle School (ADMS) in the District of Columbia, which strictly enforced their dress code. ADMS is a model school for many other middle schools in D.C. and they have all have similar dress codes, which is why I am using Deal as an example.
The handbook states that students “have the right to choose their manner of dress and personal grooming unless it presents a clear danger to the student’s health and safety or interferes with the educational environment of the school or classroom.” But if this is true, then why are the following rules also in the handbook?
“Tops must have a strap width of 2 inches. Tops must have a full back and must be long enough to tuck in when sitting, standing or reaching. Boys may not wear tank tops or sleeveless shirts.” What does the width of a tank top strap have to do with presenting a clear danger to the student’s health and safety and how would this interfere with the educational environment of the school or classroom? I have yet to find an administrator who can explain this to me. It seems like they are implying if girls show a little too much shoulder they are being promiscuous, which is unfair and sexist. Next, the rule says that boys must not wear tank tops or sleeveless shirts. Rarely did I ever see boys get dress coded for this when they broke out the tank tops on hot days at school in late June. I have even heard of girls who did experiments where they and a boy wore a tank top to school and only the girl was dress coded. This just proves the double standard in this rule.
“No leggings or jeggings may be worn unless worn with a skirt or top that is fingertip length.” I know that leggings are thin and form-fitting, but it’s time for schools to accept that leggings have become the norm for girls to wear in our day and age. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see girls wearing leggings than jeans or pants. Basically, this rule is saying that leggings are inappropriate because they are tight and show your butt. Have they considered that us girls just like to wear them because they’re comfortable and cute? And we’re not trying to show off our butt every time we wear leggings? I don’t think girls should have to wear unflattering, oversized t-shirts just to cover their butts when wearing leggings. In my opinion, the only way leggings would pose a problem is if they are too sheer and expose your skin and underwear.
“No pants with holes may be worn.” Maybe this is an adult thing, but really what is so bad about ripped jeans? No one is trying to look raggedy, it’s supposed to be a fashion statement. I think they are appropriate, unless the hole is so big it looks like the pant is falling off your leg or exposing too much skin.
“Shorts and skirts must be long enough so that all undergarments are covered when sitting, standing, or reaching. Clothing should extend as far as fingertips when arms are extended along the side of the body.” I agree with the part about the undergarments because obviously no one wants their underwear showing when they’re wearing shorts or a skirt. However, I think the fingertip rule is one of the worst and was the most strictly enforced dress code rule at ADMS. Whenever a girl was wearing shorts, she would be stopped in the hallway on the way to class and a security guard or administrator would check to see how long her shorts were. I remember I was frequently stopped for my shorts and I would feel ashamed when I had to talk to an administrator and be late to my next class because I was getting chastised in the hallway. One brave girl at my school started a peaceful group protest one day at lunch and a female administrator came up to her and said, "why are you doing this?" in a condescending tone of voice. The leader of the protest responded politely, but our innocent march around the field was shut down and she had to talk to the principal.
The main problem with this rule is that it is unrealistic to require girls to wear fingertip length shorts because most shorts sold for girls in stores are short. For me, my fingertips go down over halfway down my thigh. To find shorts that are fingertip length at popular stores like Urban Outfitters, H&M, and Forever 21 is virtually impossible. I think shorts should not look like underwear, should not be see through, and should not show any butt cheeks. But girls already know this. Requiring shorts to be fingertip length is asking for too much and teaches girls that they should be ashamed for wearing shorts, when we usually wear them because it is HOT. Why would I wear shorts that go down to almost my knee when I am wearing them to survive in the humid D.C. summers and stay cool throughout the school day? If I wanted to overheat and look like I shop in the mom jean 8-inch short section of the Gap, I might as well wear jeans to school and suffer in the 90 degree weather.
On our eighth grade class trip to Costa Rica, girls were dress coded on a daily basis for their shorts. Keep in mind it was unbearably hot there and we often went to the beach and the pool, so wearing fingertip long shorts was even more uncomfortable and annoying. We were all trying to have a fun vacation with our friends but whenever we were around teachers, we were scared about getting in trouble for the length of our shorts. To avoid this, I had to cut my favorite pair of navy blue denim Abercrombie shorts at the cuff so they could roll down longer.
In addition, ADMS administration said that we were not allowed to wear bikinis on the Costa Rica trip. I thought this was also unfair because we were in eighth grade and it was normal for us pre-teens to wear bikinis. I didn’t even own a one piece, so I had to wear a shirt over my top. Can you imagine being at the beach when it's over 90 degrees and having to wear a t-shirt because a bikini top is considered inappropriate?
One day when we were at the beach, my friends and I decided to leave and go to the pool nearby instead, under the supervision of one teacher. Some of us decided to be “risky” and take off our t-shirts to tan. Suddenly, the male teacher (who was shirtless and wearing swim trunks) saw what we were doing and we were reprimanded. We all had to put our shirts back on and return to the beach with the rest of our class. As you can see, dress code put a damper on the class trip to Costa Rica and imposed unfair rules on the girls that made us feel ashamed for wearing normal bikini tops that covered our breasts.
I get that schools are trying to prepare us for the workforce, but we are just young, high school kids. We live in the ever-growing D.C. metropolitan area, therefore we see people going to work everyday, we see our parents going to work everyday, and we see the way our teachers dress. On top of that, there is already enough societal pressure on girls. We don’t need a dress code to make us feel like we will be considered “slutty” or “promiscuous” if our shorts are too short or we’re wearing a stomach-exposing shirt, because these are the messages that are constantly perpetuated in society.
As a consequence for violating dress code, the Deal hand book says, “Students in question can be sent to the office where a counselor or administrator will determine acceptability. If there are repeat offenses by a student, parents will be contacted. Continued violations will result in detention and/or suspension.” If we are doing well in school and follow the rules, why are we considered trouble makers for something as trivial as wearing a tank top? Why do girls have to get a call home and be disrupted during their class time for what they wear? If anything, dress codes that unfairly target girls are more distracting to our education than the dress code rules that are supposed to prevent distraction.
When it comes down to going in for a job interview and working in a professional setting, students realize that we should wear formal clothing. I doubt anyone with common sense would show up to a job wearing a tank top and ripped jeans. We are old enough to see the way professionals dress around us and learn from that, therefore we should be granted more freedom with the way we dress in middle and high school, which will in turn promote self-confidence in students and mutual respect between the genders.