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.)