School dress codes are implemented to ensure clothing is appropriate and not a distraction from the learning environment. But how far should a school dress code go to determine an outfit's appropriateness? And why does it always seem like girls are singled out more than boys when discussing what is and is not distracting?
One of the biggest issues to sound the dress code alarm is girls wearing leggings to school. But what is it about leggings that cause schools to throw a penalty flag? Many parents find the rules surrounding girls and dress codes to be a double standard. After all, boys are hardly ever given dress code violations for issues like the tightness of their clothing, showing skin or having holes in their pants or shirts.
Real stories of dress code issues
Ashley Fontaine, a mom of two from Birmingham, Ala., says her daughter was given a dress code violation in elementary school, when she was in fifth grade. "The teacher asked her [my daughter] and another girl if they wanted boys looking at their butts," Fontaine tells Yahoo Life. "She said their shirts weren't completely covering their whole butt. It made me very frustrated and upset."
Another mom of two from Morris, Ala., Sydney Copeland, says her 10-year-old daughter not only received a dress code violation, but the teacher sent a letter home "telling me if she wore this again, it would be a misdemeanor with the school."
"I just don't understand what we are trying to tell our daughters," Copeland continues. "I contacted the principal and was told she believed the teacher overstepped and overreacted. However, in the last nine weeks of the year, the school sent a memo to all the parents informing us that [when wearing] leggings, [girls] need to have their entire front and bottom completely covered."
Copeland adds that this memo was only sent to fourth and fifth-grade parents, not younger elementary grades. She says the younger grades were not yet dealing with the school's dress code being enforced.
Do dress codes unfairly target girls?
Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Family Coach, shares that her daughter experienced a similar incident at school.
"Years ago, the gym teacher at my daughter's school told the parents on back-to-school night that the girls couldn't wear leggings because it could be embarrassing ... for the boys," Pearlman says. "There is a perception that girls can be dangerous for boys. If girls reveal too much of their bodies, the boys (and men) may not be able to control themselves. Therefore it is up to the girls to help the boys remain unaroused by covering up and dressing modestly."
"The boys can wear tiny swimsuits and skin-tight wrestling uniforms or tank tops and no one cares because girls are either not aroused or are able to control their urges," Pearlman continues. "The dress code treats boys unfairly by presuming they cannot control themselves around girls. And it perpetuates the very damaging idea that risqué clothing is responsible for sexual advances. The idea that boys are not responsible for their behavior if girls are revealing shoulders or knees is the precursor to rape culture."
School administrators weigh in on dress codes
Ashton, an assistant principal at an Alabama high school who prefers to keep her last name anonymous for privacy reasons, tells Yahoo Life the dress code at her own school addresses leggings and has evolved over the years as parents and students have complained.
"We want everyone in a public setting to be comfortable," the assistant principal says. "In our old dress code, they could only wear leggings if covered to their knees. Now, our kids can wear leggings and t-shirts if the shirt is long enough to cover 'all the things.' We used to be much more strict, but the fight was just too much, and nothing positive ever came from it."
How can parents address dress code issues and advocate for their kids?
What should parents do if they want to address the dress code issue positively? Parents and experts agree nothing good comes from a screaming match. "When a student does have a dress code infraction, I send the parent a text and let them know I talked with their student about it," shares Ashton. "Even when the parent disagrees about the policy, we are usually able to work through it and move forward together."
Talking with a child's teacher or school administrator is the best way to have your voice heard and potentially promote real, lasting change to a school’s dress code policy. Pearlman believes while it's up to parents to teach children appropriate dress for appropriate situations — such as not wearing a coat in summer or swimwear in the snow — it's also OK for parents to work together with their child's school to make changes to unfair or unreasonable dress codes.
"If an outfit is preventing a child from learning, the school can step in," says Pearlman. "Tank tops, shorts and leggings on boys have never prevented anyone from learning. It should be the same when girls wear those items."
"School-aged children have dealt with enough in the last few years in regard to schooling," she adds. "The last thing they need to be concerned with is being humiliated or embarrassed by a dress code violation in front of their peers. Schools must emphasize safety and security in the learning environment and spend less time being the leggings police."
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