The School Dress Code Debate That We Shouldn't Be Having

The School Dress Code Debate That We Shouldn't Be Having

Dress codes are the real distraction.

A high school girl from Helena, Montana by the name of Kaitlyn gained some media attention when she organized a "No Bra Day" at her high school, after being reprimanded by an administrator for showing up to school without a bra, on the basis that it made male students and teachers "uncomfortable," and that they "don't want to see that." After the day gained traction, Kaitlyn penned an op-ed for The Guardian describing her experience and stating her intentions behind the day.

The story left me seething. I was appalled that school administrators would have the nerve to talk to high school girls the way those at this high school talked to Kaitlyn. I was even more appalled by the cruelty and blatant slut-shaming Kaitlyn received in the comments' sections, calling her a "whore" and an "attention-seeker," and telling her to take her own life. Most appalling to me was the general spectacle of how these administrators made such a fuss over a girl choosing not to wear a bra. I have to wonder: Why, in 2016, is whether a girl is wearing a bra or not such a big deal?

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. This is part of a much bigger picture of how school dress codes throughout the country have been used to humiliate and objectify female students. Every once in awhile, I'll stumble upon some story about a local controversy over the dress codes of a particular school -- girls being sent home or forced to change because their shoulders were exposed, or their shorts or skirts were too short. Sometimes I'll hear about it because the way a dress code is enforced is especially cruel and humiliating, like one girl who was forced to wear a T-shirt and sweats that read "Dress Code Violation."

The public school system from which I graduated was no stranger to this controversy. In middle school, as the year would venture closer to summer, the principal would remind girls over a loudspeaker not to wear short shorts. I've also never forgotten one occasion in eighth grade gym class, in which the teacher called up about 7 or 8 girls, all in T-shirts and gym shorts, lined them up in front of the class, and told them all that their shorts were too short. I felt bad for those girls, and found it cruel to make an example of them like that.

I recall reading the dress code thoroughly, and in retrospect, there were policies that didn't make sense. The dress code forbade virtually any exposure of shoulders, which seems pointless because girls of all ages wear sleeveless shirts and tops all the time literally everywhere else, even to church. I don't find it overtly distracting because I'm so used to seeing girls dressing like that. It's so commonplace that it just isn't a big deal, so it seems counterintuitive to forbid such a common way of dressing.

Another major point of controversy is yoga pants and leggings. Again, girls wear them all the time, so they really shouldn't be a big deal. And once they get into college, the dress code will be significantly loosened, and girls will be free to go braless and wear leggings, sleeveless shirts, short shorts, or whatever else they want to class. And if they can't dress in those ways in high school, they'll dress like it everywhere else. By forbidding these very commonplace clothes, school administrators make distractions where there are none to begin with.

A common retort that I hear is, "Kids need to learn that the world has rules, and they need to follow them." This doesn't fly with me. To me, that's just a cop out when you don't have a better argument, and frankly, the condescension of it just annoys me. Following rules does not mean never questioning them, and that's what such a retort seems to be suggesting. Yes, sometimes you have to follow rules that you don't like, but that doesn't mean rules should exist for the sake of having them.

Another retort that I frequently hear is, "In the real world, jobs will have dress codes, and this is to prepare students for the real world." I find that a bit hard to swallow, because many of these same dress codes allow students to throw on a T-shirt and sweats and come to school. If schools aren't otherwise requiring students to dress "professional," that argument doesn't really hold up to me.

But the most problematic reasoning for these dress codes is the mindset that girls have to cover up so boys won't be distracted. That sends a litany of harmful messages to young, impressionable students. It's part of this bigger societal problem of sexualizing women's bodies. By telling them to cover up so boys aren't distracted, administrators perpetuate the message that women's bodies are inherently sexual, and contribute to women being sexually objectified in our culture.

Another way that this mindset is harmful is how it prioritizes boys' education over girls' education. By pulling girls out of class and forcing them to change, administrators waste girls' valuable class time, time they could have been using to do what they came to do--learn--simply because their clothes and bodies *distract* boys from their education. They put boys' supposed discomfort over the sight of a shoulder (or *gasp!* a braless shoulder!) over girls' comfort in their own bodies, and give no concern for how uncomfortable clothes might interfere with their ability to learn. Many women are going without bras because they find them uncomfortable, and that was Kaitlyn's only intention in not wearing a bra: personal and physical comfort. I also think of one female friend who finds jeans extremely uncomfortable, even painful, and is much more comfortable wearing leggings. Yet the administrators force girls to forgo their own personal comfort for that of boys, and within that is this subtle reinforcement of male privilege and entitlement.

And okay, let's talk about those helplessly hormonal teenage boys administrators are so worried about. I personally find that way of looking at boys and men incredibly insulting as a man myself. We have way more self-control than such a mindset gives us credit for; our sexual urges do not dictate our lives. The Helena principal's contention that Kaitlyn not wearing a bra would make boys "uncomfortable" is a questionable one. Half the time, I probably wouldn't even know whether a girl was wearing a bra, but even if I did, why the hell would I be uncomfortable with the absence of a strap the width of a finger? I will also mention again that women will dress in these forbidden manners everywhere else outside of high school, and will dress that way once they go to college, and we men do just fine, because we're so used to seeing it that it isn't a distraction to us.

The Helena principal contends that female students can't go braless because male students and teachers "don't want to see that." First of all, teachers? I don't even want to go there. Second, who gives a sh*t? It doesn't matter whether boys want to see it or not, because Kaitlyn and her friends didn't dress for them; they dressed for themselves, and for their own personal comfort. And that's all that should matter. Girls shouldn't feel the need to dress solely based on what boys might think, and definitely not based on what adult male teachers and administrators might think. Girls should feel free to choose their clothes based on what is comfortable for them, and only them. It's that simple.

It's time to stop acting like women's bodies and clothing choices are up for public debate. That's a bigger distraction than a braless shoulder ever will be.

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An Open Letter to the Person Who Still Uses the "R Word"

Your negative associations are slowly poisoning the true meaning of an incredibly beautiful, exclusive word.

What do you mean you didn't “mean it like that?" You said it.

People don't say things just for the hell of it. It has one definition. Merriam-Webster defines it as, "To be less advanced in mental, physical or social development than is usual for one's age."

So, when you were “retarded drunk" this past weekend, as you claim, were you diagnosed with a physical or mental disability?

When you called your friend “retarded," did you realize that you were actually falsely labeling them as handicapped?

Don't correct yourself with words like “stupid," “dumb," or “ignorant." when I call you out. Sharpen your vocabulary a little more and broaden your horizons, because I promise you that if people with disabilities could banish that word forever, they would.

Especially when people associate it with drunks, bad decisions, idiotic statements, their enemies and other meaningless issues. Oh trust me, they are way more than that.

I'm not quite sure if you have had your eyes opened as to what a disabled person is capable of, but let me go ahead and lay it out there for you. My best friend has Down Syndrome, and when I tell people that their initial reaction is, “Oh that is so nice of you! You are so selfless to hang out with her."

Well, thanks for the compliment, but she is a person. A living, breathing, normal girl who has feelings, friends, thousands of abilities, knowledge, and compassion out the wazoo.

She listens better than anyone I know, she gets more excited to see me than anyone I know, and she works harder at her hobbies, school, work, and sports than anyone I know. She attends a private school, is a member of the swim team, has won multiple events in the Special Olympics, is in the school choir, and could quite possibly be the most popular girl at her school!

So yes, I would love to take your compliment, but please realize that most people who are labeled as “disabled" are actually more “able" than normal people. I hang out with her because she is one of the people who has so effortlessly taught me simplicity, gratitude, strength, faith, passion, love, genuine happiness and so much more.

Speaking for the people who cannot defend themselves: choose a new word.

The trend has gone out of style, just like smoking cigarettes or not wearing your seat belt. It is poisonous, it is ignorant, and it is low class.

As I explained above, most people with disabilities are actually more capable than a normal human because of their advantageous ways of making peoples' days and unknowingly changing lives. Hang out with a handicapped person, even if it is just for a day. I can one hundred percent guarantee you will bite your tongue next time you go to use the term out of context.

Hopefully you at least think of my friend, who in my book is a hero, a champion and an overcomer. Don't use the “R Word". You are way too good for that. Stand up and correct someone today.

Cover Image Credit: Kaitlin Murray

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First-Generation Kids of Brown Parents Are Bridging the Gap Between 'Traditional' and 'Modern'

Speaking as a first-generation child of Indian parents, it's going to be a rough and rocky road for us all.


I didn't realize or think about what it would be like being the first generation in my entire lineage to live in a country other than India. It just never occurred to me that this was a bigger deal than I thought it was. Yes, I would be living on the opposite side of the world than most my family members, such as my grandparents. But growing up in this country with parents that grew up in India, this is more than just a geographical distance between my family members and I.

My parents left India and came to the United States to ensure that their children (my brother and I) would have more opportunities and live a better life. That kind of transition is definitely not easy because they had to abandon their home, their language, their family, and their country to come to a completely foreign land. It required a lot of struggle, sacrifices and a hell of a lot of courage to do this. And I am forever grateful.

But in a way, this is going to be a way more difficult path for my brother and me, along with any other first-generation children of Indian parents. Not in the sense that we will have to uproot our lives to move across the world, but we will have to face a lot of societal and traditional issues. Right now, it seems as if we don't necessarily belong anywhere. We are different from the other people our age whose families immigrated to the U.S. hundreds of years ago. But we are also different from our parents because they cannot relate to us and we cannot relate to them.

While our parents grew up in a land where things are done a certain way and traditional rules must be followed, it is a little different for us. Growing up in a "melting pot" country where there is diversity of race, religion, and thoughts and ideas, we are constantly exposed to new things.

We were always given the freedom to think and say what we believed and wanted. We have a lot more room for expression than our parents or grandparents ever did. But even though our parents came to this country and were exposed to these thoughts, they stuck with the beliefs they always grew up with because it is a part of their identity. For us, it's a little different because we grew up and surrounded ourselves with all kinds of new people and thoughts.

As amazing and expressive it feels to have this freedom, it also makes it more difficult for first-generation kids because we are going to have to stand up to tradition and introduce these new ideas to not only our parents to all of society. These ideas include dating and love marriages, the extent of religious beliefs and our own faith in God, how to raise kids, distribution of responsibilities in a family where both the husband and wife work, etc.

Our families have done things a certain way for generations and generations, and for the first time, this is going to be disrupted. There is going to be a change in tradition, a revolution. And it's going to be us first-generation children of Indian families that are going to have to bridge the gap between "traditional" and "modern." It's going to be a difficult road, but in the end, it will be worth it because our future kids will have a more open-minded family and society to be a part of.

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