It’s end-of-the-school-year season around here. For middle school and high school students, that means there are lots of events happening for which the youth are expected to look extra nice and fancy.
Which also means it’s a time when schools send out special dress codes based on stereotypes of what males and females should wear. That stupid gender binary. Boy and girl. Pink and blue. You wear this and you wear that.
For example, this week, an Orange County middle school sent out the following dress code for their 8th grade Promotion Ceremony:
“Appropriate dress for the promotion ceremony:
GIRLS: Dress, skirt, blouse, and/or nice pants, comfortable shoes, small platform heels or sandals. Modest strapless and spaghetti straps are allowed for promotion. Appropriateness and reasonable modesty is the key here.
BOYS: Nice pants, buttoned shirt, polo shirt, closed-in shoes. Cleanliness and proper grooming is the key focus for the boys.”
Where do I begin?
Let’s start with the law.
According to federal law, students have the right to dress and present in a way that is consistent with their gender identity, so long as they follow rules for how to dress that apply to *all* students. This includes how they dress at school every day as well as for dances, graduation, and other school events.
According to our state’s (California) safe school laws, students have the right to wear clothing that expresses their gender identity. If a school has a policy that says what boys and girls may wear to school or for special events, then the school must allow students to wear the clothing that corresponds to their gender identity. It’s even better if school dress codes are gender-neutral and do not tell students what to wear based on stereotypes about what some people think boys or girls should wear.
Dress codes like the one above are in violation of federal and state laws stating that clothing options must be the same for every student regardless of their gender identity and expression. Dress codes need to be inclusive of transgender and gender nonconforming students.
Take my gender nonconforming son for example. He rolls his eyes at polos, but loves a good blouse. He would prefer a small feminine shoe rather than a masculine dress shoe. The kid has his own style and has the legal right to express it at school and school events.
Laws aside, the “key focuses” listed for each gender make me cringe. Assigning the adjectives “appropriate” and “modest” to girls assumes that girls inevitably will want to be immodest and inappropriate. It’s exactly this kind of rhetoric that feeds into a larger culture of victim blaming in cases of sexual assault (think of a college campus in the news).
Telling boys that their “key focus” is cleanliness and proper grooming implies that they are usually dirty, smelly slobs (but hopefully they can pull it together and shower for this special event if they try their best). By specifically stating that boys must be clean and well groomed, the school implies that they either assume girls are naturally clean and groomed or that it’s fine if girls are dirty and sloppy (as long as they aren’t dressing in a way that distracts the boys).
These are unfortunate messages for kids to hear. And, these dress codes have lasting effects. A friend explains:
“I just wanted to share how triggering this dress code is for me and how surprised I am by this. I want to share because I think it gives perspective on how damaging these types of things can be.
While I had no idea what a lesbian was when I was in middle school, I clearly knew that I was different. I also was obviously a ‘tomboy.’ In middle school, I was a quite gifted musician for my age, and as such, was selected to perform in an honor orchestra. This was exciting, until the dress code for the concert was handed out. I didn’t participate in that concert, and there were other events I missed out on as well due to this. All through school, I loved to sing, but never joined choir because of the required gowns that the girls had to wear. What surprises me is how this still resonates with me as a 52 year old woman.”
This friend went on to have a career as a professional musician at the highest level, including performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s devastating to think that her middle school dress code had the potential to turn her off to music forever…and that it could be doing so to student musicians right now.
What are unlawful and implying dress codes keeping students from doing? Playing in the orchestra? Attending graduation? Going to prom? Staying in school?
Get it together dress-code-writing adults – or, at least, you know, abide by the laws of your job.
(I wrote this post while ungroomed and dressed inappropriately just to prove a point and go against the key focuses in this middle school dress code. The world did not end.)
Have you ever watched anime? Most anime set in schools feature school uniforms, which are pretty much ubiquitous in Japan, I’ve heard. And yet most of those animes have at least one character who wears the opposite gender’s uniform, with no issues. (Usually it’s to signal to the audience that they’re tomboyish or effeminate, but this is not portrayed as a problem for anyone.) In addition, animes often feature gender-indeterminate major characters (I still don’t know if Chrona from Soul Eater is male or female, though I think of him as male).
Many of us complain about dress codes but I never thought of it in the way that you presented it with gender nonconforming or transgender individuals. It is sad when we really look into the dress code and what it does to students. Requiring females that do not feel comfortable in dresses or skirts, wear them because it is what is presentable for the special occasion. Like you stated, it makes the individuals uncomfortable and quite frankly not want to go or be there. In high school, we didn’t have a strict code on how long your hair could be or anything, but your hair had to be a natural color. So individuals couldn’t color their hair blue, green, purple, pink, etc, because of how distracting they were to our classmates. This always puzzled me because I didn’t understand why they were not only restricting us on our clothes, but also our hair. It is sad to think that schools, which are places were you spend up to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, where you are supposed to find yourself, what you want to do, will not allow you to express the true you, because it might be distract the students learning atmosphere.
I wish that my local school would rewrite the dress code; some of the requirements seem sexist and unimportant. For example, “Leggings must be worn with clothing covering down to mid-thigh length.”
I also agree, thank you for this post!
I am on the school board in my town & one of the absolute most frustrating things to me has been trying to change our dress code to something more inclusive. Or at least get rid of the ban on “skimpy” tank tops and “short” shorts.
You are completely wonderful and I’ve looked up to you for a long time in raising my 6.5 year old, who wanted to wear his Fluttershy hoodie (complete with pink tassles for the mane!) yesterday to school. (And of course I let him!) These kids will find their people, and I think with parents like you out there, and those of us who follow your amazing example, they’ll be just fine, even with “dress codes” and misunderstandings of people who aren’t quite aware of it all yet. The world seems to be evolving, let’s just hope it continues. 🙂
I think you bring up some great points. All of them. It’s also interesting that girls can wear sandals but boys must not.
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Have one list of clothing. Choose from the list. Done.
In Australia we have uniforms, so the whole “modesty” thing doesn’t enter into it. Some schools apply rules about hair (boys must not be past collar length) but mainly private schools. We send our kids to public school with no hair rules.
I was very conscious of that, because I remembered how important it was for me to express my creativity through my hair when I was at high school. It turned out to be very important issue in our family because my son had worn his hair long for years and I made sure he went to a school that didn’t require short hair cuts for boys.
Now that son is my daughter, and one thing that pleases me greatly is when she came out, she already had the hair she wanted. Thankfully the school is open as fair as gender identity goes. When she is brave enough to wear the girls uniform (she is still dressing as a boy, but wants to change) there are no laws, nor school rules, that will disallow that. The school is aware of her transition and will support her 100% when she does decide to wear the girls uniform.
I sincerely hope your gorgeous boy will be able to express himself fully when it comes time for this event. It’s no easy path, but when you see the smile of a child being exactly who they want to be, it is so worth it!
I am hoping that you addressed this with the schoolboard behind the orange curtain.
The whole modesty vs well-groomed thing is just UGH from any angle, even leaving aside gender non-conforming students! While it sucks that people would be so cisnormative and whatnot, it’s comprehensible because some places are still a bit behind and need prompting to remember that kind of thing (even though they shouldn’t). But reading this you’d think feminism hadn’t happened, either.
I can really relate to your friend’s experience. I remember being such a tomboy around 3rd to 4th grade and the idea of wearing a dress felt very humiliating to me, which gave my family great material to tease me with. I don’t think they realized it wasn’t a joke and they were truly hurting my feelings but I do very clearly remember wondering why it was such a big deal if I just wanted to wear pants and why they couldn’t just leave me alone about it. I remember a hair stylist refusing to cut my hair short like a boy’s even though it was what I wanted. I’m glad things are changing for the better but it is astounding just how much the lack of a gender binary scares the shit of so many people.
I would hope that when the hair stylist refused that you stood up and walked to another stylist and asked, “Are you willing to give me the cut that I want?”
I agree with everything you’ve said. Could you possibly provide an example of a dress code that accomplishes the needs for safety and decorum while also not reinforcing hurtful, outdated gender stereotypes? I know that trailblazing is hard and exhausting, but sadly most humans will continue as-is until a welcoming light is shined on a better path.
I’m intrigued about the safety needs in relation to clothing – what safety needs does a dress code meet? No trailing scarves, possibly, or perhaps no eight-inch heels, but I honestly can’t think of a safety issue relating to whether someone wears a skirt or trousers.
At our local elem school(pk-6), flip flop are not allowed for safety reasons. In event of fires, evacuation, they figure that small children are not proficient in walking in a backless flimsy sandal, especially in crowds of people. Or if it gets wet they’ll slide and possibly hurt themselves or others when exiting.
I understand this rule entirely and for safety purposes it makes sense. Other than that earrings and necklaces were to be removed or taped for gym class.
Two instances of dress code safety. I’m sure there were others but can’t think of them currently.
Other than those 2 things, we had a very standard outdated dress code. But. For dances/graduation/band you just had to look presentable.
Those do make sense, thanks. Thinking about it, we had a no-jewellery rule for sports as well (actually I think there was a no jewellery rule in general, but it allowed plain earrings except during PE). I had understood the comment to be saying that rules about skirts for girls and trousers for boys was safety-related, which I still don’t think is logical!
i am a “”Lady”” that said, i am also a very able and physical worker.
BUT i almost always wear skirts.
I am not less able because i am a lady, and wear skirts.i am not more female BECAUSE i wear skirts. it is just my personal preference. so what.
I hated to wear dresses as a child & I’m not a fan of them today. Why not assume that the parents can make sure their children’s dress is appropriate & leave it at that. Why do the schools feel the need to micromanage / helicopter the kids clothing
Notice how the girl’s dress code mentions modesty and the boy’s doesn’t.
My niece is switching to public school. I looked at her dress code out of curiousity. Almost all of it applies to all students equally.
Hair – Neat clean well groomed must be tied back for safety if required.
All skirts, pants, and shorts must be worn at the waist and extend past midthigh
No tank tops or sleeveless tops
The only real gender specific language High School only: Mustaches that are neatly
trimmed are acceptable; sideburns must not extend below the bottom of the ear lobe; no other
facial hair is permitted. No facial hair for Middle School boys.
This is from a TEXAS public school suburb of Houston, not Dallas but still.
When my local schools started rewriting the dress code earlier this year, I did not hesitate to put them on notice for sexist double standards, as well as a lack of gender neutrality, and I cc’d the school board. The new dress code is way better than the old one, but every single person on the board had never even thought of making it gender neutral, and there are at least 3 transgender people in the high school, not to mention the more than handful of gender non-conformists.
I completely agree! Well said!