Dress Code Blues: Helping Parents to Cope

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(The Vancouver Sun, March 18, 2002)

Q: As an administrator of an elementary school in the Lower Mainland, I recently developed a dress code with our staff and parent community. The dress code includes, among other things, no make-up and requires girls to wear tops that are long enough to be tucked in and covers the shoulders. Our goal for the school is to create a wholesome atmosphere in the school where children can be children without the pressures to hurry up and be young adults. While our parent community is for the most part very supportive, we always struggle with a few who oppose the dress code and insist on sending their children to school with spaghetti strap tops with bra straps showing. Do you have any comments about dress codes in elementary schools and could you offer suggestions for dealing with resistant parents?

Saleema and Teresa: First, we’d like to start by saying that we are 100% behind you in your concerns for how young girls are dressing these days. In our work at elementary and high schools, we are often shocked at the revealing or even provocative clothing roaming the hallways. Things have sure changed since our elementary school days when baseball shirts, runners and jeans were the norm! We know that your fellow administrators echo your concerns as well—not too long ago, we heard a principal addressing the dress code at one school in the morning announcements, stressing that underwear MUST be worn underneath skirts. Our mouths hung open while the students didn’t seem to be phased. As a result, we find most schools have adopted some kind of dress code much like yours.

In terms of dealing with resistant parents, we have a couple of suggestions. First, maybe it is the term “dress code”, that is problematic. Terms like “clothing expectations” or “dress guidelines” may help these parents to feel that the school isn’t dictating what their children should wear. Second, and we’re sure you’ve done this to some extent, would be to help parents (and their daughters) understand the reasons for the dress code. Obviously, tank tops and short skirts in the middle of February are not only inappropriate, but also highly uncomfortable. And how can girls run around the playground at recess wearing platform shoes?! More important, however, is the message we send to others through our clothing. In a perfect world, women should be able to express themselves in whatever clothing they are most comfortable wearing without it being interpreted as an invitation for unwanted attention, sexual harassment or assault. However, influences like the pornography industry have contributed to this very type of mistreatment and stereotyping of women.

Providing parents with concrete examples that demonstrate this may also help. We recently heard from a teacher that a grade 6 girl was approached and forced to the ground on her way home from school by three grade 7 boys who then touched her breasts. When the principal asked for an explanation for their behavior, one of the boys responded “Well, we can practically see her breasts through her tank top, we wanted to touch them. Besides, we didn’t think she’d think it was a big deal—it was just a joke.” A parent told us that he seriously reconsidered his grade 7 daughter’s clothing when she and a few friends were approached at a mall by three men in their late twenties and asked to go for coffee. A mall employee disclosed that these men were known to recruit young girls at the mall for prostitution. Would they have been approached wearing baggy jeans and a baseball shirt? Probably not.

We can’t imagine that a parent would want their daughter to experience either of those situations, especially if they are avoidable. You’re right—in our world of half-naked pop stars (No, we’re not going to pick on Britney Spears this time) and magazine models, it is no wonder that girls face pressure to be young adults when they’ve barely even started puberty. We also can’t imagine that a parent wouldn’t want their daughter to just be a kid for as long as possible and go to a school where they are even a little bit protected from the pressures of the outside world. If dress “guidelines” will help girls to just be girls in a safe environment, then were all for it!