Education comes in all forms in school: from linguistics to mathematics, physics to economics, to how to take risks and excel in academics.
Teachers “prepare us” to succeed by teaching us subject-specific content and study techniques, all while mingling in the values of an exemplary individual like confidence, eloquence, and independence. “It’s your grades, your life, your choices” they repeatedly tell us. However behind this facade of freedom lies an important exception for female students: clothing.
I was a 14-year old middle schooler who had harmlessly decided to match skirts with my friend Katie. The delicate floral cotton skirt was a one-size only item, meaning it supposedly fits all body types.
We were strolling down the dirt path to the football field at break, looking for a quick breath of fresh air, when someone barked my name. Total silence across the yard. The assistant principal came marching down to me, pointing at my skirt. “Unacceptable!” she exclaimed.
I looked at Katie, distraught; she was wearing an identical outfit. I was severely dress-coded in front of all my classmates and aptly punished.
How? Donning an unwashed, wrinkled tracksuit for the rest of the day. Katie was not. My legs, which were longer and skinnier than other seventh graders’, were the issue.
How does one justify embarrassing children and adolescents because of their body?
The resulting damage is real, and we need to stop the emotional distress that is being inflicted on our students.
Oppressive dress codes are the issue, where the mental state of young girls in school is disregarded as schools cater to the whims of male students and staff.
Their justification? Teenage boys are more easily distracted. This reinforces a thinking that women must mold themselves to the caprices of young boys with raging hormones.
However, girls’ experience with puberty doesn’t seem to be acknowledged, as we struggle with growth spurts in places that boys do not. Clothing can pose a challenge to girls with a size that changes frequently. Shirts that fit months ago are suddenly considered “provocative” because of changing body dimensions, with shorts becoming shorter as we gain centimeter after centimeter every month.
Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Family Coach, a private practice helping families resolve everyday problems, wrote in a letter to her daughter’s school principal: “We need to be teaching the boys what appropriate behavior is instead of teaching the girls that they have to cover up to protect themselves from the boys.”
If we combine a more lenient dress code while stimulating important conversation about what appropriate behavior is for both genders, we can reach a middle ground that will allow girls to feel comfortable and boys to react respectfully.
By fostering tolerance and acceptance, we create a progressive environment in schools, rather than focus on a culture of reprimand and shame.
Evidently, critics fear a uncivil culture, where girls provoke faculty and their male classmates with how much skin they can expose in a feigned pursuit of one’s personal style.
Schools should instead create an environment where everyone’s individual situations are taken into account, while nurturing genuine personal development in a teenager’s quest for self-discovery.
Faculty will be able to subtly address concerns with a girl’s clothing, but it must be done with better justification than the distraction of her male classmates, and they must offer solutions that will not yield emotional harm.
Encouraging young girls to feel comfortable exploring their womanhood while teaching boys to grow up as responsible men is a vital lesson schools must teach their students. Graduation should not only celebrate the culmination of academic achievement, but also the mutual respect that a proposal like this one would develop in our future generations.