School Dress Codes and Gender/Sexuality Bias

I have always struggled with what to do when it comes to rules about dress codes.  Whether that was when I was working in state-based juvenile facilities that required girls to wear over-sized, donated men’s t-shirts to “cover up” and not distract the boys or in youth group banning tank tops and running shorts on a mission trip where we would be working in 100 degree weather for the purposes of modesty.  As you can tell from these two examples, dress code “issues” are almost always about dealing with girls, more specifically dealing with girls’ bodies and the cultural conundrum that these bodies bring to light in the eyes of adults.  We oscillate between wanting to control, restrict, even shame these bodies (and lives) to claiming we should be completely non-judgmental and let them wear what they want (freeing them up to face the world of cultural stereotypes and gender bias without any guidance).

In light of approaching this issue from a different perspective. I want to share the letter I wrote to my school district administrators as a wave of complaints has lead to discussion of the dress code.  My hope was to share a view that acknowledges the need for a dress code. All work places have dress codes for a variety of reasons and it is a good lesson to teach children about public and professional life.  As well, we can all make a significant shift to non-gendered dress codes that articulate rules clearly and values based in our mission rather than reactive (hetero)sexist claims.

I have been informed that [School X] administration has received feedback regarding the student dress code and would like to share my opinion as a parent.

First, I do not have any concerns with regard to the spirit of the dress code.  Instead, I would like administrators and the Board of Ed to host a conversation or seek feedback on how the dress code is interpreted and enforced. Then use this information to clarify the language and implementation of the policy.
For example, the I. section regarding shorts and miniskirts is often interpreted by administrators and teachers as an “arms-length to the thigh” measurement rule.  That is an interpretation of the policy and one that results in significant variation of enforcement. Every girl in gym class would be in violation of the policy if arms-length were the actual rule not to mention accounting for differences in height and arm length. Why not be clear and say no shorts that reveal underwear as per the policy or body parts above the leg.  Or even better, say what is meant, no items of clothing that reveal the buttocks. If that is not what administration means, then make a length of inseam rule such as 3″ which is a standard clothing designation.  As well, the “no underwear showing” rule should be clear related to underwear for boys and girls, but is interpreted for bras as tank top straps that are the width of two fingers. What about spaghetti strap tank tops that have built in bras and do not reveal any straps?  Those do not violate the policy as written, but are banded based on interpretation in the schools.  Be clear!  If tank top straps are to be at least an inch or two in width, state that, and enforce it for all genders.
As of now, the rules are left open to interpretation and highly gendered. My preference as a parent would be for the school to live into its own non-discrimination stance related to gender, gender identity and sexuality by removing gendered language and judgement from the dress code (and the dance regulations, but that’s another email). For example, shorts and miniskirts are given their own section in the rules and are the first citation.  Anyone who writes policies can clearly see that there is a gender bias and heterosexual assumption in the approach of this policy simply by the priority and wording. The bias and uneven interpretation is carried through in everyday examples in the schools. This is why many of girls and their parents complain.
As a parent, I ask that administration and the Board of Ed be clearer in defining the policies and rely on non-gender biased policies. I’ve provided two examples of how to designate length and width that do not rely on gendered interpretation or enforcement as examples. In the spirit of a long term view of doing what’s best for the kids, I’d rather not reinforce unhealthy sexuality messages about/for girls or boys.  I’d also like to encourage our schools to play to pre-teen and teens developmental needs, being clear and consistent with policy and enforcement.
As a Christian parent, I share my values differently, though they are not inconsistent with the school policy.  Here is what I teach:
God created you and your body, how you dress reflects to God what you think about that amazing and wonderful gift.  That means God should know you value your body by keeping it clean, eating well, and exercising.
When it comes to clothing, your choices should communicate to another person what you think about yourself as part of God’s creation. Clothing should communicate your respect for your self, including not wearing dirty clothing or clothing not appropriate for the weather (so long as those are available). Clothing shows respect for others by dressing appropriate to the context (e.g. you wear different clothes to church than to school than to basketball or softball practice.).  Finally, the world will judge you based on how stylish, expensive, and gender-reflective your clothing is.  Your choice of clothing is an opportunity for you to show how you value your body, how comfortable you are in your own skin, and how you respect and love your neighbor. Most importantly it is about how you show God your thanks for an amazing, miraculous body that lets you be in this world doing God’s work.
Initially, what a child chooses to wear is less important than how they understand their choices. This requires that parents help kids learn to interpret the world around them.  Let’s not hide the fact that there are economic, historical, geographic, racial, and gendered influences on our bodies at all times and most often compliance with or dissent from is expressed in clothing choices.  At different developmental stages, asking kids to share how their choice reflects their understanding of and living out of God’s creation starts a conversation that leads to thoughtful and aware kids who can interpret cultural context and know that they are bound by God’s claim on them not society’s. That’s what is most important to me as a Christian parent.