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What Teen Girls Really Think of Dress Codes

For weeks my Facebook feed has been rife with rants about public school dress code policies. I read a story about an uproar over rejected prom dresses in Shelton, Conn., and recently, a school administrator in North Carolina told a teenager that her modest sundress and jean jacket were inappropriate for school.

Whatever "improper" outfit is being questioned, the bigger issue is this: Why are we monitoring girls' bodies and shaming them for their style choices?

While it sometimes seems ridiculous to be having heated conversations about short shorts and the fingertip rule, with sexism at the epicenter of this issue, we need to talk about it with the people who are most affected: our daughters.

Although there hasn't been a dress code controversy in my daughter's Massachusetts middle school, Addie and her eighth-grade friends regularly trade stories about getting "pulled over" and "coded." When found to be in violation of the school dress code policy, the student is given a football jersey to wear over her clothes.

When I sat down to talk with Addie and four of her friends about this issue, they had plenty to say about short shorts, distracting boys and what they should be allowed to wear.

Mom.me: Tell me how you feel about your school's dress code?

Joji: It's annoying because girls in our school are told what to wear and what not to wear, but the boys don't get in trouble if their underwear is hanging out. No teacher will pull a boy over in the hall and say, "Pull up your pants." But if a girl is wearing short shorts, a teacher will pull her over and say, "You need to change your shorts. We're told that we're "distracting the boys." Girls do wear short shorts, but that's not because they have the intention to try and grab the guys' attention.

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Abby: I don't like the dress code. I think it's a promotion of rape culture that girls should be blamed for not wearing enough clothes. We should protect everyone by teaching guys to focus on schoolwork and stop looking at a girl's butt and boobs. A girl should be able to express her personality in her clothes, and the school is restricting that by teaching her to hide instead of being confident.

Grace: They should give us good reasons for how they want us to dress. They shouldn't just say, "Don't do that because it distracts the boys." That's not a good reason. It's sexist and bad explaining. It's patriarchal.

I know it's a small thing, but it's a stepping stone to larger things, to sexual and gender equality in the world.

Juliette: The idea of the dress code is that no one should come to school in something that's not appropriate for a learning environment. But the thing that's happening is people are placing sexuality on a piece of material that happens to be the bra strap my shoulder. Is it really exploitative of the human body to see a strip of fabric? Guys are allowed to be distracted and have insane fantasies about cloth. Girls aren't. It's a little strange when a girl gets pulled over for a bit of fabric showing. Well, if you're the one whose sexualizing a bit of fabric, I have to ask why you're blaming me?

Addie: I don't like how they tell us the dress code without telling us the reason beyond saying "boys peek." How is a girl showing her shoulders worse than a guy showing his underwear? Also, if school is supposed to be a learning environment, how are we supposed to learn when we're sweating in our jeans, because we can't wear the shorts we're comfortable in? I just started wearing skirts this year because I'm afraid of getting in trouble for not wearing something appropriate. And they don't check the length of skirts—maybe because they're more ladylike.

Joji: I think it would be a good idea if the principal went around to each homeroom and got our opinions about to wear. That way we aren't being told what to wear, and it's our choice.

Mom.me: So then you take responsibility for what you wear and you respect the dress code because you created it.

All: Yes.

Juliette: I think the dress code should be about social protocol and not about men. But the dress code is actually about sexism. If we had social mindfulness, we wouldn't need a dress code anymore.

If you want me to respect myself, and I respect myself in this outfit, then you shouldn't decide I'm a slut because I'm wearing this shirt. It's just a shirt!

Abby: Just the other day I was ranting to my mother about the dress code and my brother—a 17-year-old white male said to me, "You should check your privilege." That got on my nerves, because I know there are more serious feminist topics, but for me this is the biggest areas of sexism that I've experienced. I know it's a small thing, but it's a stepping stone to larger things, to sexual and gender equality in the world.

Grace: I also think that the way they tell the boys about this is telling them that they are in control of society.

Juliette: Modest is hottest. That's a phrase they use to enforce dress codes. So you don't have to wear all of these revealing clothes to be beautiful. But my perception of myself and my beauty should not be determined by whether or not other people find me "hot."

Joji: Whenever we're called down for the dress code talk, most of the focus is on girls and not guys.

Addie: The dress code says that students are expected to dress in good taste and take pride in their personal appearance. So, good taste is what the administrators think is good taste.

Grace: They talk about respecting, but then they put you down for wearing certain things. So, if you want me to respect myself, and I respect myself in this outfit, then you shouldn't decide I'm a slut because I'm wearing this shirt. It's just a shirt! We had a dress code in kindergarten; we weren't allowed to wear things like tank tops. So, if you're sexualizing our clothes that young, it's not good.

Are we supposed to deny that we wear bras?

Abby: With the dress code, it's about the shorts, tank tops and bra straps. I have two Guinness Shirt—I'm Irish—

Addie: (quoting dress code) "No clothing that is imprinted with obscene language or artwork that relates to alcohol, drugs or smoking."

Abby: So, I wear this Guinness shirt, but nobody stops me. But when I wear shorts, they say, "Are they down to your fingertips? "No they aren't because it's hard to find those kind, and when I do, I don't like them.

Grace: Also, they want us to hide our bra straps. Are we supposed to deny that we wear bras?

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Juliette: The day I got dress-coded, my mother said, "I wish I could be in your generation because showing your bra strap was the height of terrible fashion. And I want the freedom to do that, but I'm too old now." It made me wonder, if the people who make the dress code just don't understand that it's not a part of our culture anymore to hide your bra strap. We've moved progressively forward.

Abby: I think if a girl is confident about what she's wearing, then you shouldn't just crush her confidence.

Image via Sandra A. Miller

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