The Problem With Dress Codes
Politics and Activism

The Problem With Dress Codes

This is not an open letter apology for distracting boys with my pale legs.

The Problem With Dress Codes
Lexie Tubell

I will be the first to admit that in my high school career I spent roughly equal amounts of time scrambling to finish my science homework before class and worrying about my dress length. The first is my bad -- I know I should have finished my homework the night before. However, the latter, even though it is my problem, is not my bad. Higher education systems weave lengthy dress codes and elaborate guidelines, brandishing critical eyes for their teachers so that they may catch the discrepancies on students. At the beginning of every semester we would sit in homeroom as our teacher went over the school guidelines, sighing when he made it to the dress code, "You guys know what's OK." Yet the thing is, we really don't know what is OK.

Even though dress codes outline a slew of rules, they leave much room for ambiguity. Even within the definitions themselves people become confused: my friends and I spent many lunch hours arguing if my dress had to only be past my fingertips, or if it had to be a credit card length above my knee, or just two inches above my knee. (And the credit card thing - what way do you hold up the card?) Do the straps of my shirt have to be two fingers wide, or three? (Remember that my fingers are not the same size as yours.) Asking these questions about fingers and credit cards confuses us students. If there are strict rules, we need strict guidelines that elicit what exactly we are allowed to wear. Having one teacher follow one guideline and another follow a different one leads to discrepancies in the dress code, not just in the student's clothing.

I had trouble determining how I feel about dress codes because of all of the stances that I understand. One day I want to be a teacher, and I want my students to respect their bodies and others'. One day I want to be a mom, and I want my children to dress with modesty (or at least decency). Yet right now I am an 18-year-old girl, and I wear short dresses. I wear crop tops. I understand how clothing works on girls. I also understand that in my college classes, I can show my belly button or my legs and the males around me can still take notes. This does not necessarily mean that they are not distracted by my torso or legs, they honestly might be. It just indicates that they can control themselves. Girl clothing is hard. In high school I shopped with the intention of being within dress code, or just slightly out of it, but clothes don't always stay the way you bought them. Dresses especially are wont to shrink after the first wash (even if you hand wash them with every desire you have for them to stay the same length). Society does not acknowledge school dress codes, and neither does fabric. Fashion designers are not thinking about what schools want, they think about the trends. The trends in America do not follow the two-inch-above-the-knee rule. I cannot find shorts that hide most of my thigh, and as a 5'3" female, I worry for the masses of girls taller than me. What kind of shorts are they finding?

A highly disputed reasoning for dress codes claims distraction as its root. Girls' shoulders are distracting. Girls' bra straps are distracting. Girls' thighs and collar bones and butts are distracting. Who decided that a fifteen year old girl is to blame for male hormones? Boys will be distracted by girls. That is just how life works. Yet realize: girls are also distracted by boys. We tell our daughters and students to hide their shoulders and collar bones and bra straps. We tell them they are the cause of the distraction in class, we tell them it is their fault that these boys cannot pay attention. We do not tell boys the same. Yet it is the same. Girls are as attracted to boys as vice versa. Boys are less frequently sent to the office for dress code violations, and their guidelines within the dress code are brief. They wear shorter shorts than girls; they sag their pants. It is not assumed that girls are tempted by attractions, but they are. Only targeting girls in dress codes forces us to lay blame on ourselves. We assume that boys are not in control of themselves, that we must hide ourselves in order to keep the boys, and ourselves, in line. Why are we more focused on what is outside of a girl instead of inside? Isn't school about a girl's education, not her condemnation? Why are we forced to change in respect to male distraction, but they don't have to wear longer shorts? Please tell me that glaring white thighs are not distracting to you.

Students are going to be distracted anyway. No matter the amount of clothing, boys are going to think about girls. In the same respect, girls are going to think about boys. Yet more than that, they are going to think about other things too. Teachers should not be too proud as to deny the fact that their lesson plans are not the most interesting thing of the day. Yes, your students should pay attention. Yes, they do love your class. Yet it is practically impossible for teenagers to pay attention for a whole hour. They will think about their crush, but they are also going to think about their soccer game that happens in two hours, what they are having for lunch, and that episode of "The Bachelor" that aired the night before. You cannot control distraction. As a teacher, you can curb it by having interesting lesson plans and being excited about your material; however, you will lose the battle when it comes to distraction. Sometime throughout your class your students will not be thinking about the calculus problems in front of them. There is no way to stop it.

Dress codes do need to create restrictions for students. Vulgar, suggestive attire should be regulated. As should explicitly sexual attire. (Even as an avid wearer of crop tops, I do not believe they should be worn in high schools. There is just too much skin that could be easily covered, and should probably be covered in a respectful setting.) When a girl bends over you should not be able to see all of her underwear. The problem is, you want to regulate dress code in an attempt to teach decency, but you do not want to cross vague lines between "decency" and "sexy." I want my children and my students to respect their bodies and others'. Respecting themselves in their clothing is a good first step to feeling good about themselves. However, I do not want to diminish creativity and individuality. Clothing is a large factor in expression of self. It is a way for students to claim who they are. A coordinator of instructional technology claims that "the problem often comes when there is a discrepancy between what students, parents, teachers, and school administrators consider to be one of those things [irresponsible attire]." As an 18-year-old, I do not see a problem with shorter dresses, but a principal might believe in one. As a 15-year-old, I did not find a problem with my collar bones, but a teacher told me there was one. Adults tend to see the more sexual side to attire than the students wearing the clothing. To the students, clothes are clothes. Yes, you are going to have students who intend to be sexual. But more likely than not, you are going to have students who wear leggings because they are comfortable, students who wear shorter dresses just because they like them, students whose bra straps show by accident. A boy hasn't talked to me about an exposed bra strap since fifth grade. Adults need to begin to listen to students. Ask where the lines should be. Have teenage input. Adults should not assume they understand what teenagers are going through, or what is detrimental to them. Let's begin talking about what the problem is. I am tired of adults assuming they know what is best, assuming they know what we think. Eighteen-year-old males can still translate Latin while my torso is showing. Fifteen-year-old boys can still take history notes while a girl's freckled skin is showing.

One day when I am a teacher and one of my students is distracted, I pray that I do not blame it on a girl's bare shoulder.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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