Our family took a stand on our school’s dress code

By Jennie Burke
@JennieBurke

Last month in Louisville, girls were denied entry to their school dance for wearing dresses that fell inches above the knee. The week before, in Alaska, a referee disqualified an elite high school swimmer over an interpretation of her team swimsuit. Recently my eleven-year-old daughter experienced a similar disqualification: from a “class bonding” hiking trip.

The night before the trip, I sat on her bed as she rifled through her drawers, in search of appropriate clothing. I told her that she would have to wear leggings tucked into her socks—a regular practice in our part of the country. We know to be vigilant against Lyme disease, the mysterious, incurable autoimmune disease carried by the ticks that live in our woods.

“I can’t,” my daughter said. “If I wear leggings, I have to wear shorts over them. And that looks dumb.” She explained a school rule that banned “skinny” pants of any type, unless shorts were worn over the pants to cover the backside. I was surprised to learn this. Girls were allowed to wear leggings to sports practice, so why not on a field trip? The school offered co-ed swimming lessons—certainly boys had seen “more” than a body in yoga pants.

“Are you serious?” I asked. I suggested jeans.

“Nope. Too skinny. They have to be wide-leg.”

“Well that defeats the purpose! What are you supposed to wear? Sweatpants?”

Stone-faced, she said pajama pants were her only viable option. “Don’t worry Mom, I’ll tuck them into my socks.” That night I lay sleepless, blaming myself as an accomplice. After all, I was signing the tuition checks that paid the men who ran the school. The next day, I lathered my daughter’s downy bird-legs in DEET and sent her out the door in the longest pair of shorts and knee-highs she owned.

What happened next became a defining moment in our family story. I wrote a letter to the principal, sharing my concern about the “yoga pants rule.” I included research about the origins and pitfalls of restrictive dress codes. The principal, a gruff middle-aged, former football coach (who likened himself in conversation to a “big teddy bear”) called me for a telephone conference. His brand-new assistant dean, an openly gay woman, was also on the line. Hearing her voice comforted me. Surely she would be an ally in my struggle to understand (and hopefully change) the rule.

The principal explained that yoga pants do not promote an environment for learning. Next, he recalled a time when he visited a student with an eating disorder in the hospital. He was certain that seeing other girls in tight pants contributed to her illness. It sounded like he was crying as he spoke about her. He closed by sharing a belief that some girls do not have an “appropriate” shape for yoga pants at school. As he spoke, rage crackled inside me. I was shocked that a person in his position, with so much responsibility, could be so misguided. When I asked for research that supported his theories, our conversation took an aggressive turn. He raised his voice. He said he didn’t need research: what he saw in the halls everyday was enough. My hands shook. I felt afraid.

“Actually, I have some research,” the assistant said. Thank God, I thought. Here she comes to rescue me!

She did not cite a specific study, but stated that the frontal lobe of the male brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25, therefore teenaged boys cannot be held accountable for their actions around girls in yoga pants.

And that’s when I snapped.

I told her that I assumed she would feel differently because she’s a woman. At the end of the conversation, the principal stated flatly that the rule would not change. In a follow up email, he said his ultimate goal was to “keep each and every one of our students as innocent as possible for as long as possible.”

That night over tacos, my husband and I discussed the issue with our four young teenagers. My three daughters thanked me for taking on the challenge. My thirteen-year-old son was supportive too. “I’m around girls all the time, and I can control myself just fine,” he said, mopping his plate with a last corner of flour tortilla. “Besides, American clothing rules are based on Puritan values. In France, there are naked people on TV, but no guns.” I told my family how lonely I felt because it seemed like I was the only parent who cared enough to challenge the rule.

I posted a wicked rant about the experience and rape culture on Facebook, but my husband asked me to take it down. “No one’s gonna take you seriously.” A few moms reached out empathetically, but feared their children would be “blackballed” at school if they said anything. Some of my friends who taught there were equally supportive, but said they could lose their jobs if they said anything. And so I simmered on my own.

If I forced my daughters to wear shorts over their pants, I would acknowledge an underlying belief the rule was built upon: that my daughters were primarily sexual beings—their existence reduced to a seductive suggestion. The rule also made an inference about my son, and all boys: that they are inherently violent, and unable to control themselves or concentrate in the presence of female form. It was a rule I could not, and did not stand by. Instead, we pulled our children out of the school. Each member of our family agreed that this decision best matched our values and hopes. After our departure, the school actually did change the rule; they quietly deleted a sentence from the handbook. No announcement was made. It simply went away.

Firmly rooted in our new school community, we still reflect on the dress code experience and how it changed us. I feel bolder, knowing I have the support of my children and partner behind me. Now my kids examine rules, and pick apart the ways they show preference to one group or another. Most of all, when they sense injustice, they bring it back to our dinner table…and we figure out together what we stand for—and what we can change.

Jennie Burke is a certified English teacher and holds an MFA in Nonfiction. She lives with her family in Baltimore.

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