On school clothes (part two of two)

school_kidsTold you I’d get around to this sometime.  This is the second part of what I really hope is going to be only a two-part piece on school clothing; part one is here if you missed it the first time around.  Before I begin, I’m going to quote myself from the first piece.  This rule still applies, and in fact it applies more, because I’m more likely to trip up given the specific nature of this post when compared to the first.  So, without further ado:

Lemme make this crystal clear right now: women are not, under any circumstances, responsible for the reactions of men or boys to their clothing.  Period.  Point-blank.  If at any point in this piece I say anything that appears to contradict that statement, I should be called on it and I am wrong.

I’m probably gonna screw that up at least once.  I’m not kidding about you guys calling me out on it if it happens.  Do it.

I’ll start with a story.  I don’t feel like sagging pants was a huge thing when I was in middle school and high school, but it was certainly a thing that was around and that some people did. I have, in fact, one story about sagging pants that dates to seventh or eighth grade.

Actually, this isn’t much of a story:  one of the kids in my class was sagging, and the teacher’s response was to call him out in front of the entire room with the words “Mark, I don’t wanna see the color of your underwear.”  Now, she was a Japanese immigrant, so to properly enunciate it you have to say it with a Japanese accent and stretch out Mark into Maaahk.

It’s actually the quintessential “you had to be there” thing– but people I know who were in the room at the time still say that to each other every once in a while despite the fact that I haven’t seen the Mark involved since graduating high school.  I’m pretty sure he’s a pastor now, which is hilarious.

So let’s begin our discussion of sexism and gender in the middle school with what I’ll call the Maahk rule:  I don’t want to see the color of your underwear.  This is, refreshingly, a gender-neutral rule: it means that the boys have to keep their pants at their waists (and I don’t know if I pointed this out, but telling boys to pull their pants up and boys and girls to tuck in their shirts are easily my #1 and #2 uniform corrections, and they are miles above whatever #3 might be.) and it means that if the girls wear skirts, they have to wear them long enough that flashing isn’t going to be an issue.

If it were up to me, I’d simply ban skirts entirely unless a family could provide a bona fide religious requirement to wear them– if only because those families never also produce length-of-skirt issues.  Why?  Skirts are hideous, not in terms of how they look or the function they provide but because everything involved in dealing with them quickly becomes either unfair or creepy as hell.   Monitoring skirt length sucks.  The fingertip rule depends on how long a girl’s arms are, which seems stupid.  “Knee length” requires you to define where the knee is.  I have actually seen staff members (none male, thank God) require girls to kneel in order to determine whether their skirts are the right length.

Uh-uh.  No. Never.  Under no circumstances, this sucks and it’s shaming and fucked up and it should never ever happen in a school, particularly and especially if it’s a male staffer.  When I worked in the Catholic school I made it perfectly clear to both the principal and the pastor that there were no circumstances under which I was ever saying a single word to a student about the length of her skirt.  Period.  Surprisingly, I got no pushback on that.  Are there girls who just really like wearing skirts?  I’m sure there are.  I like wearing jeans.  Can’t wear ’em to work.  Too bad.  This is where the “professional atmosphere/this is your job” aspect of dress codes kick in.

The other problem with skirts?  Teenage and tween-age girls have a habit of growing.  Which means that a skirt that was entirely appropriate at the beginning of sixth grade might be oh holy shit short by the middle of sixth grade.  More on this in a bit.

So, yeah: the Maahk rule.  I don’t want to see the color of your underwear.  And if it were up to me, we’d just do away with skirts altogether.

(Alternatively, and I’m going to modify my own rules in the previous post: allow skirts, but require all skirts regardless of length to be paired with leggings.  The main thing is, I never want to get sucked into the skirt-length debate.  I’d much rather just ban the damned things.)

On to the other sexualizing aspect of dress codes: tight and/or revealing clothing.

(Actually, let’s get this out of the way first:  I don’t think there’s ever much of a reason to have dress codes before fifth grade or so.  If you do have a dress code before fifth grade, none of this should matter, because a nine year old in a sundress is not trying to attract male attention by showing her shoulders and you should stop being a creepy asshole if you think so.  Have a descriptive dress code if you like, but the idea that eight-year-old girls should have to worry about clothes being tight or revealing is ridiculous and if you are worrying about that yourself as an adult there is something wrong with you.)

Here are some reasons why a young woman might wish to wear tight and/or revealing clothing:

  1. It’s comfortable; to hell with what anybody else thinks.  As a fat man, I can’t relate to this, because it is impossible for me to be comfortable in tight clothes.  However, I’m willing to believe it’s true.   Aren’t I charitable?
  2. You want people to look at you.  True of many girls.  Also true of many boys, obviously, but in boys this rarely leads to tight or revealing clothes.  Important: it is okay to want to be looked at.  It just may not be appropriate for school.
  3. Picking a fight.  This is closely related to #2, but adds a level of aggressiveness to the whole thing.  There exists a subset of young women who appear to wear tight clothes  specifically so that they can bark “Why are you looking?” at the first staff member to challenge them on it.  In some ways, it’s garden-level predetermined insubordination, with a nice soupçon of creepiness and assholery to go with it.
  4. You have no idea that you’re even doing it.  And here, you see, especially at the middle school, lies the problem.

I don’t give a single shit about the “distraction to boys” angle of the dress code, folks.  Boys need to grow into men, and part of growing into a man involves learning how to not turn into a slavering halfwit every time a bare shoulder or a bra strap floats across your field of vision.  If you’re really concerned about the girls’ clothing screwing up the boys’ ability to learn, well, allow me to introduce you to a little thing called gender based education.  You don’t solve the distraction issue, assuming that is even possible, by corralling the girls.  You solve it, if you care to do so, by corralling the boys.

Also true: there’s literally no level to which women’s clothing can be controlled that will remove sexual distraction from teenage boys.  It’s fucking impossible.  Boys that age– probably girls too, to at least some extent, but I’ve never been a teenage girl so I can’t be sure– are perpetually distracted by sex.  It’s fucking unavoidable.  Much like Shaquille O’Neal, you cannot stop it, you can only hope to contain it.

Let’s talk about this picture for a bit, taken from Gretchen Kelly’s original piece about this:


This is almost cute in its naivete.  I have thought at least four of those things.  I’ve thought at least one of them this week.  Shoulders and collarbones, ladies, are awesome.  This look?  Insanely sexy:


Note both a shoulder and a bra strap.

But anyway.  I’m getting– heh– distracted.  But here’s the point: teenage boys can be distracted by ridiculous things, and expecting the girls to be even a little responsible for them when they are barely responsible for themselves is offensive on a number of levels.  You cannot allow male distraction to determine female clothing.  It’s fucked up and wrong and it needs to stop.  If you’re seriously concerned about it, go gender-based and get the sexes separated entirely.  You will still have seventh grade boys adamantly refusing to stand up every once in a while and will have to deal with the oh shit he has a boner moment as a teacher and decide what to do about it.  That would happen if you put him alone in a room, too.  Welcome to puberty.

(At this point, I realize that this post is likely to be longer than part one.)

(HA!  That’s a reason for boys to not wear tight clothing!  Boner prominence!)

The reasons that dress codes should worry about tightness and/or revealingness are Reasons 2 through 4 up there.  Why?  Because intent matters.  Because we do need to worry about people who are going to school for reasons other than academics– and intentionally dressing to “show off the goods,” so to speak, is a problem– and because one important aspect of dealing with particularly middle-school aged girls is that they frequently have no idea what they’re doing.  

This is where I start dancing around violating the “women are not responsible for men’s reactions to their clothing” rule, but I really do think there’s a difference here: if you’re wearing yoga pants because they’re comfortable, I don’t have a problem with you.  If you’re wearing them to get Billy in 3rd hour (or, for that matter, Jenny in 4th) to look at your ass, you’re deliberately disrupting the educational process– or at least aiming to– which is an actual and distinctly different problem.  This is not the same as demanding girls be responsible for boys’ reactions.    It’s expecting girls to be responsible for their own actions.  You aren’t at school to catch a boyfriend.  You’re at school to learn.

This may be a distinction without a difference, and I’m interested to hear people’s reactions to it.  It does mean that schools do have a non-sexism-related reason to police tight and/or revealing clothing– because it’s not as if you can institute a rule that if you think something is comfortable it’s okay.

And, honestly, I’m much more concerned with #4 anyway.  The maturity level of middle-school aged kids in a single cohort (and this is true for boys and girls) is incredibly variable, and can vary insanely over the course of the year.  Ask any sixth grade teacher, in particular: they are, by and large, teaching children in August and September and right around March they start getting caught making out and grabbing each other’s asses.  And frequently they have no idea that something is showing off too much chest or too much butt or too much leg.  Why?  Because those legs have grown six inches in the last five months, because those boobs weren’t there a year ago, and because what do you mean I have a butt.  Go into any middle school in America and you will find eighth grade girls who look like they’re ten and eighth grade girls who could walk into a bar and not get carded until they opened their mouths.  And just because a girl looks like she could walk into a bar and not get carded does not mean that she has remotely the emotional, physical, and, yes, sexual maturity to be able to deal with what has happened to her body over the last few years.

Schools take on a lot of responsibilities beyond reading and ‘rithmetic, guys.  One of them is trying to guide these kids through adolescence– trying to literally keep them comfortable in their own skins.  And rules about tight and revealing clothing need to be there, for two separate reasons: to keep the ones who legitimately are showing off from deliberately screwing up what is supposed to be a professional atmosphere, and to help those who have no idea from doing it accidentally.  At some point, somebody– and generally it needs to be a female staffer– needs to pull Susie aside and make sure she realizes that it might be time to think about a new pair of pants, or to call her parents and suggest that they do it.  Because it seriously might be that three months ago those pants fit just fine and she doesn’t realize that they look like they were applied with a spray can this morning.

True story: I had an eighth-grade girl walk up to me once while I was at the front of a school bus.  I had my hand on the top of the seat in front of her.  The girl dropped her entire rack– and she was probably a C-cup– onto the top of my hand and my arm.  She had no idea that she was doing it.  If you’re sitting at a desk, they’ll come over and lean over the desk to show you something, with, again, no idea what they may or may not be showing off.  If an adult woman lets me look down her shirt, or pushes her boobs into my hands, ten will get you twenty that she’s doing it on purpose.  Teenage girls don’t all have that awareness of what they’re doing yet; they may legitimately have no idea.  Or they might.  Either is a problem, yes?

Here’s the problem (he said, 2200 words in):  All of the last, oh, six paragraphs or so can end up in practice looking exactly like Girls are Temptresses Who Must Be Controlled to Save the Boys. As I said earlier, a distinction without a difference.  And I’m not into that.  I think it’s offensive and ridiculous.  But how do we insert a difference in there so that it’s clear that this is coming from a place where 1) the most important thing about being in school is the learning part, and 2) when someone breaks tight/revealing dress code rules, keeping the focus on education, and making sure that the kids are aware of how they might be perceived?

Enforcement, of course.  The focus should never be on making someone wearing inappropriate clothing feel bad about it.  I understand the reason behind, say, making uniform violators wear a bright pink 4XL I’m Out of Uniform shirt, but it’s not my job to make kids feel bad, and in most circumstances if a disciplinary intervention produces shame it’s probably one that should be avoided.

And it’s here, unfortunately, where I kinda run out of ideas.  While I don’t much like the Shame Shirt, the advantage of it is that it keeps the kids in class.  I don’t like the idea of keeping Jenny out of class because her pants are too tight or her shirt is too short (left unsaid so far: an operational definition of “too tight,” which is virtually impossible) and I also don’t like the idea of letting her know that if she doesn’t want to go to class all she has to do is wear a miniskirt to school and bam she gets to sit in ISS all day.

The best solution, it seems, is for the school too keep a lot of spare uniform-appropriate clothes on hand, in a wide variety of sizes, and require uniform violators to put those on.  Problem is, that’s expensive and difficult and those clothes are going to go home and not come back a lot, which is why most schools go with the Shame Shirt solution– or just locking kids in ISS– instead.  I suppose schools could go the same route my kid’s day care goes with and require parents to send a spare set of clothes to school with their kids, but that’s ridiculous on a lot of levels too, chief among which that– yep– they’re gonna grow out of the spare clothes too.

I’m stopping at 2748 words, guys, and I hope I’m not breaking my own rules anywhere.  Let me know how I did in comments.

10 thoughts on “On school clothes (part two of two)

  1. Teaching young adults modesty is not an easy thing. It’s too easy to stereotype and demonize when it is so hard to explain that in 3 years they’ll do something that ends with a baby and ruins what we think their lives should be.

    You can’t force young adults to ignore their hormones. Not going to happen. The only hope is to educate them before (yes, before) their hormones kick in so they will have half a fucking chance to understand it. That education puts out a level playing field. You can then talk with a student and explain why their clothing choices are seen as inappropriate for the school setting. All that prepatory work means that it is very acceptable to ask someone to wear longer skirts or stop being the creepy guy in 5th hour.

    It is not an easy thing because it almost demands case by case treatment. The problem, in my view, is that kids need to be taught about being adult long before we are teaching it to them. How to be an adult is rarely ever part of the curiculum – and that is our downfall.


  2. Paul J. Stam

    Sorry to say this, no I’m not, but I hate clothing. I hate buy it. I hate washing it. I hate getting it as a gift. I hate wearing it. I hate everything about it except that it sometimes keeps me warmer in cold weather which may be why I hate cold weather. But I very much do like that you liked my post of “Telephone Killer – 32” on writingiam.wordpress.com. Thanks a million and Aloha -pjs.


  3. Perhaps going back to the “professionalism” thing would help with this? I’d think most clothing items can be objected to on sexy grounds would also be objectionable on professionalism grounds. The “It’s too sexual” element could be mentioned in relation to that, where appropriate.


  4. Good googly! I was sweating over the length of my Sunday post! I’ll read every word of this and say something marginally intelligent about it. Right this second, going to comment on your About page because that seems to work better than email for us and I don’t have an appropriate thread at my blogs to strategize with you on.


  5. Pingback: All the Stuff… 5 (Costumes, Dress Codes and Love Stories) | Drifting Through My Open Mind

  6. Good article, but, speaking as a teenage girl, you forgot a fifth reason why a girl would wear revealing clothing: it makes them feel good about themselves because they think they look good. Often, girls wear what they do less to get noticed but more because they feel confident. Otherwise: decent read.


      1. That’s true, it is sort of a combination of one and two, but I still think you could have specified it a bit more. It feeds into the stereotype that teenage girls only do things to get noticed by boys, which is a frustrating one to fight. Still, it’s interesting to hear from a teachers’ perspective, because I mostly hear the students, especially the girls’ and their frustration with the seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent rules that we have to abide by. For example, my county has a rule that all sleeves must be three fingers width, but whose three fingers? I had a friend whose mother is a teacher in the same county and she was given the okay to wear the shirt by her, but was stopped by a teacher in the cafeteria and told to cover up. This sort of inconsistency and the gender bias mentioned in your article is probably why so many students are frustrated with dress codes.


  7. I agree with Katharine. I hated my school’s dress code (and I generally hate ALL dress codes) with a passion. To the people who wrote it “professional learning environment” only looks one way–and from reading this, I’m of the opinion you’re on that train, too. But one person’s “professional” is another’s “stodgy and ugly,” and there are few better ways of destroying a young person’s passion and interest than forcing them to dress stodgy and ugly. And no reason you give is going to convince them that you know better, especially if the reason is patently foolish. (“Long, dangly earrings are unprofessional, my ass. You just have some weird problem.”)

    Besides, school is TOTALLY where you go to meet a boyfriend. Where else are you going to meet one?


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