By Kristen H. McLeod
“I wasn’t allowed out for recess today,” one of my daughters said after school one day when she was in kindergarten.
Her tank-top’s one inch strap contravened her teacher’s definition of “lasagna width.” I believed rules were rules and used the experience as a lesson on doing things we don’t agree with as part of our social contract. My three girls self-policed hems and collarbone exposures, referencing peer walks of shame to the office for dress code breaches, even as we discussed subjective definitions of modest.
Rules serve life; they keep us safe—laws governing how we drive, for example. Raise your hand to speak, do your homework, don’t hit. For adolescents, rules provide predictability and consistency. It isn’t dress codes I take issue with, but the inherent framing of women’s choices muted by consensus, the onus on us to ensure our bodies are not a distraction.
Fashion’s recent shift to cropped tops corresponded with an uptick in dress code violations at my daughters’ schools, illustrating how what’s on the rack may conflict with what’s considered appropriate. Near constant access to social media trend tutorials—uber prevalent during lockdowns and online school—mean interested adolescents use their ubiquitous devices for style hacks as they define both their fashion proclivities, and sense of self.
A curvy teen, I was uncomfortable with my body, straddling a world where I’d wanted to be beautiful, and yet remain somehow unseen. Had my school had a dress code, that discomfort would have grown. Shirts never fit me the way they did other girls. Suffering the up-and-down gaze of teachers assessing clothed bodie would have morphed my distress into something greater.
Dress code enforcement amplifies the notion my daughters are liable for potential male actions. It’s true, on one hand, that clothing signifies all kinds of things about who we are and what we believe; at the same time, it’s also never true our bodies make promises our mouths haven’t. We’ve also taught our children not to judge books by their covers, but it’s complicated. Should someone be able to go pant-less at the office? Shades of grey make clear. None of this is easy.
The concept that the boys my daughters sit beside are incapable, sex-driven fools who can’t focus because of what a girl is wearing/not wearing, though, feeds the notion boys are not responsible for what they might do when provoked by a girl’s attire (See: Chanel Miller, Know My Name), feeding rape culture’s core value of victim blaming. If a boy can’t study because your skirt is too short, it isn’t much of a leap to assume rape happens for a reason, and the invitation offered by extension of how you present. It helps to examine the question: Can dress codes serve a purpose, and if so, how?
Dress codes can be constructive. Guidelines often preclude profanity, illegal substance use promotion, or gang affiliation, for example. It’s also true others judge us based on how we present, and we in turn make assumptions about people’s values, lifestyle, character, and more based on what they put on that morning. Greys abound in terms of what each of us deems acceptable, however, and we know from historical and current debates there are numerous ways to define modest.
After two years of lives put on hold, of fear and anxiety and online classes and cancelled everything, these kids deserve our support. If we have concerns about their health and the costumes they wear as markers of something, should that concern not be directed toward the over thirty percent increased diagnoses of eating disorders? Skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia? Fragile mental health has always been a risk of adolescence but is important especially now. Their worlds have shifted – closed, in fact – and they lost control of nearly every last thing just as their growth demanded they stretch their wings.
What if, instead of policing what they wear, we focused on helping teens comprehend and understand the known impacts of social media use on body image, or supported them in unpacking why so much value is placed on appearance? Discussing how fashion is made and marketed, how pandemic isolation influences decisions, talking through how appearance functions as a public proclamation of their own worth, might lead adolescents to consider exactly how they establish their own value internally, and then demonstrate it externally.
This hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve been accused of dress coding at home when I’ve commented on choices, and I think I’ll be uncomfortable with some of this for the rest of my life. That’s what happens when there isn’t one right answer. But fundamentally, what I’m looking for—what I’m sure many of us are—is simple. That young people be treated with respect, be consulted, and be heard on these matters.
The pandemic has placed intolerable burdens on adolescents, and they need our help.
They’ve covered their mouths and noses for us. They’ve stayed home, for us. They’ve locked themselves away from the world, from each other, from everything. We owe them: support, respect, the ability to self-determine, and to back up the truth we’ve been telling them since the day they were born: that their bodies are their own.
We owe them safe spaces to parse out just how they own those bodies, these kids who are now old enough to drive. To write beautiful poems and throw footballs and dance and sing, old enough, certainly, to choose their attire. To adorn themselves with colour and material and fit and comfort as they decide. To be beautiful or bold; plain or outlandish, fashionable, or not. To make mistakes and yes, bad choices; failure teaches, and what else are our educational institutions for? Most of all, though, we owe them respect in this regard, and the chance to explore their autonomy safely.
Kristen H. McLeod (she/her) teaches creative writing and writes about motherhood, ADHD, and growing up in a cult where Satan’s clutches were not – unfortunately – designer handbags.
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