High school dress code: The battle for keeping up appearances

High school dress codes: The way teens dress can be the source of a daily early morning argument in homes across the country, and such issues have gone all the way to the US Supreme Court. It's a controversy of self image, constitutional rights,  gender politics and, well, changing styles.

REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Many US schools require students to wear district-prescribed uniforms in an effort to avoid many dress code battles and to equalize students. Here, Evangelina Guerra, 10, picks a pair of uniform shorts inside an Old Navy clothing shop during a "ChildSpree" back-to-school shopping event in San Jose, August 3, 2013.

It's an all too familiar scenario for parents: The school says that shorts must extend past the tips of limp finger tips, but daughters insist that nobody follows the rules. Families with boys are not necessarily spared these arguments either as many want to wear saggy pants while the school requires that waistlines be hitched firmly above the hips. 

Dress code confusion can pit parent against child in an uncomfortable battle that can set a nasty tone for the school year. There's a reason this conversation is so difficult; it involves issues of self image, freedom of expression, and gender politics all wrapped up in an argument at 7:30 in the morning.

To their credit, teens are not always wrong when they say that others get away with flouting the rules. Many schools employ the fingertip rule for skirts and shorts (or more rigidly require that they extend no higher than a couple inches above the knee), – and yet they also permit cheerleaders to wear extremely short skirts to games, and to class on game day. This contradiction in rules raised some eyebrows in Pinellas County, Fla. last month and prompted area schools to ban cheerleaders from sporting their uniforms in class, leaving some families to wonder why the uniforms would be approved for games if not for class, the Tampa Bay Times reported. (The principal of the school in question told the Monitor that the cheerleading squad and school officials had reached a compromise and declined to comment further. The Tampa Bay Times reported in a follow up story that the school ordered track pants and dug up some old uniforms with longer skirts for the girls to wear to class on game day.)

Confusion around the school system's new dress code made the local news in Chambersburg, Pa., last month, when a school administrator mistakenly told parents that girls would be allowed to wear scoop-neck tops during an orientation meeting, despite the fact that the school's new dress code expressly banned them, Examiner.com reported.

Even in the absence of public snafus, parents can still find themselves confused. School dress code policies often fluctuate from year to year, as administrators attempt to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends. The popularity of skin-tight leggings, for instance, has prompted some schools to write new rules that spell out whether or not girls will be permitted to wear them as pants or if they need to wear a long shirt, skirt, or shorts over them. That means that an outfit that was permitted last year, may not be acceptable this year.

Emma Jones has seen some drastic changes in dress codes in her 50 years working in the El Centro, Calif. public school system, first as a gym teacher, then high school principal, and now a Central Union High School District board member. "In the early 70s we used to have the girls come in and have them kneel down on the floor so we could make sure there skirts were long enough to touch the ground. As society changes, we develop new norms." Gone are the days when schools forbade girls from wearing pants and required boys to press their trousers. However, dress codes persist.

More than half of the country's schools have some form of dress code, according to a survey of school principals conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, those policies vary drastically between schools, districts, and states. This can be especially confusing for families that change schools. To complicate matters, there is no gold standard for what is acceptable attire in school. 

"There's a good reason for that inconsistency," says Jo B. Paoletti, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland who has spent 30 years researching children's clothing in America. "Dress codes have been a thorny issue since the 1960s when schools tried to start addressing miniskirts, long hair, and girls wearing pants." Schools and families have engaged in tug-of-war battles over dress codes in classrooms and courtrooms all over the country for more than 50 years, she says. One case, Tinker vs. the Des Moines Independent Community School District made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1969, producing a ruling that the school system had been wrong to tell the Tinker family's two teens that they could not wear a black arm band in protest of the Vietnam War. Such attire was protected under political speech, the ruling found.

However, for most of today's teens, dress code grievances are probably not politically motivated, but are more certainly driven by the desire for self expression, which is a trickier line to toe, says Professor Paoletti. "You think you are expressing something with your clothing, but it's not like you are shouting in a language that everybody understands," she says. "While boys may choose baggy pants and bandanas because they are comfortable and express their love of hip hop, to others those outfits scream 'thug.' " This issue takes on more serious significance in school districts plagued by gang violence.

Girls run into a similar disconnect between what they feel they are portraying with their outfits and how their peers and adults perceive them. Jean Kilbourne, a feminist speaker and author of several books, including "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood," remembers telling her daughter, "in an ideal world all people could dress any way they want to, but in this world dressing in [a provocative] way sends out a message that puts girls at risk." She is quick to add that while a girl's choice of attire does not grant anyone permission to assault her, it does have impact on the way others perceive her.

That is probably the rationale behind policies that regulate the length of hemlines and the width of tank top straps. While Dr. Kilbourne supports such polices, she cautions administrators and teachers to be careful about enforcing such policies in a way that shames girls. "It can't be a situation where the girls are blamed for being provocative and distracting the boys. That's a very dangerous road to go down," she says.

That's a tall order when it comes to enforcing rules that are gender specific and grounded in modesty, says Ruthann Robson, a law professor at City University of New York and author of the recently released book, "Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy." "School administrators say they are trying to desexualize the climate in the schools and if girls do a certain thing this will be distracting to boys. I see a lot of problems with that. First it implies that all boys are heterosexual and also that girls bear the responsibility for how boys act and respond to their sexuality," she says.

Professor Robson suggests that schools ought to consider what issues they are really trying to address with these codes and critically examine whether or not policing attire will realistically accomplish those goals. "If teen pregnancy is the problem that you want to solve there are other ways to address that," she says. Many schools say that their policies have been constructed to promote respect and minimize disruption in the school environment. Robson would like to see schools focus more on discussion of respectful actions than spending time policing attire. 

If schools are working to prepare children to become functional members of society, Robson wonders if school policies should simply mirror the unwritten public dress code. "We already have standards of decency and indecent exposure. Why shouldn't those same standards apply in the schools?"

However, teens glean societal messages from many different sources. While taking a survey of outfits worn around town to the grocery store, the bank, and soccer games will produce one image of what is acceptable attire, the constant flood of images of scantily clad pop stars that follow them where every they go set a very different picture. Ms. Jones sees Miley Cyrus's gyrating debacle at the MTV Video Music Awards last month as a perfect example of this. While Cyrus's performance hijacked the national dialogue, Jones posted her concerns on Facebook. "Miley Cyrus has gone over the edge, not funny, can't dance, and was totally disgusting! As long as parents and then society continue to normalize certain behavior it becomes the accepted norm."

Those messages from pop-culture ring much louder for teens than any implicit public code, says Kilbourne. "Girls these days are really pressured to dress in a very provocative way. All of their role models – celebrities and pop stars – dress that way. For them, sexy and attractive is defined in a very clichéd and stereotypical way." School enforced dress codes can help to alleviate some of the pressures that girls feel to dress seductively and can offer parents some guidelines to fall back on, she says.   

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