How we navigate school dress codes matters more now than ever

My daughters or someone they knew were reprimanded nearly every day this fall for a dress code infraction, writes Kristen McLeod. Clearly, something was up.

We tell them their bodies are their own. We must back that up

People may make assumptions about a person's values, lifestyle and character based on appearance, but Kristen McLeod writes judging what's acceptable to wear to school can be a subjective process. (Gillian Flaccus/The Associated Press)

This First Person piece was written by Kristen McLeod who teaches creative writing and writes about motherhood, ADHD, and growing up. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

"I wasn't allowed out for recess today." 

One of my daughters, in kindergarten at the time, had worn a top with a strap that didn't meet her teacher's standard of "lasagna width." 

I used it as a lesson on doing things we don't agree with as part of our social contract. My three daughters mainly self-policed over the years, using other students' breaches of policy to guide their choices. 

At home, we discussed subjective interpretations of modesty. When hems, sleeves or necklines were called into question, we considered how modesty was meant to mitigate male distraction. 

I was frustrated, but I believed procedures — raise your hand, don't hit — are important.

"Rules are rules," I explained. "Even when we don't agree with them." 

Dress code infractions became more frequent this fall. Clearly, something was up. Pandemic stress? Newly trendy crop tops? I can't say for sure, but my daughters or someone they knew was coded nearly every day.

Victim blaming

I was a curvy teen, uncomfortable with my figure. I wanted to be beautiful yet to somehow remain unseen. 

My body image issues would likely have been magnified had my school-imposed dress codes. Shirts never fit the way they did other girls. I can't imagine suffering the up-and-down gaze of teachers my daughters describe.

These policies blame my daughters for potential male actions. We teach children not to judge books by their covers, yet tolerate dress codes. 

None of this is easy. On one hand, clothing signifies who we are and what we believe. On the other, no one should take what someone else is wearing as some sort of promise.

Seeing boys as incapable, sex-driven fools who can't focus due to what someone is wearing nurtures the idea that they aren't responsible for what they might do if provoked. It isn't a leap for kids to assume assault happens for a reason. It feeds rape culture's core value of victim-blaming. 

Navigating the subtleties

Do dress codes in schools serve adolescents at all?

Clothing policies can be constructive. They often preclude profanity, promotion of illegal substances and gang affiliations.

People make assumptions about our values, lifestyle and character based on our appearance, and we do the same to them. It gets complex when what's acceptable is subjective and policy enforcement changes from one administrator to the next.

How we navigate these subtleties is important.

Are communications surrounding policy respectful? Is the main goal of school — education — upheld when dress-coded girls are hauled out of class or stopped in crowded halls and then marked late or absent?

Have students been consulted? It might be uncomfortable, but making space for student voices honours teens' developmental craving for autonomy. Inviting them to the table is empowering and lets them practise thinking critically about complicated matters.

Arbitrary guidelines simply encourage a reactionary flouting of rules and subsequent degradation of mutual trust. I know from personal experience. Recently, I suggested a sweater.

"You're dress coding me? Seriously?" my daughter responded.

I think I'll be uncomfortable with some of this forever. That's what happens when there isn't one right answer.

More constructive conversations

The pandemic placed heavy burdens on adolescents. They've masked. They've stayed home. They locked themselves away from the world, from each other, from everything. We can't forget what they've done for our community, and how it affected them. They need us.

Fragile mental health has always been a risk in adolescence. Pandemic safety restrictions mean they lost control of nearly everything just as it was time for them to unfurl their wings. Clipping those wings has had consequences. Eating disorder diagnoses are up more than 30 per cent among young girls. Skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety and insomnia suggest bigger fish to fry than uncovered collarbones. 

What if schools helped teens explore the impact of social media on body image? Discussed how they're marketed to as consumers? Unpacked how isolation affects mental health? They could work through how clothing can be a public declaration of self-worth and consider what they are declaring with theirs. 

Redirecting energy from policy enforcement to healing would acknowledge their pain in a world where their appearance is one of the few things they can control. 

More constructive conversations, rather than old-fashioned dogma, would mean no other five-year-old sits alone inside because someone decided her strap was too narrow. When she begins high school, she'll be free to choose her apparel and free from the idea her body is a distraction to others. 

These kids are old enough to work and drive, write poems and throw footballs, dance and sing. That should mean they're old enough to choose outfits, select colour and material, assess fit and comfort. They should be free to be beautiful, bold, plain, outlandish, fashionable, or none of the above.

We've told them since they were born that their bodies are their own and they are responsible for them. Now we must back that up.

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Kristen H. McLeod (she/her) teaches creative writing and writes about motherhood, ADHD, and growing up in a cult where Satan’s clutches were — unfortunately — not designer handbags.