Teens Need Some Kind Of Dress Code. It Just Needs To Be Fair

image from a public school dress code manual

There have been some news reports about young women in middle school and high school being sent home because the administrators have deemed their clothing inappropriate. An article, from 2013, on ThinkProgress gave me pause to reexamine my views on dress codes and the treatment of young women. While I feel any dress codes need to apply to all genders equally, I do believe that teens need some boundary setting.

This is no isolated incident in the United States. Across the country, young girls are being told what not to wear because it might be a “distraction” for boys, or because adults decide it makes them look “inappropriate.” At its core, every incident has a common thread: Putting the onus on young women to prevent from being ogled or objectified, instead of teaching those responsible to learn to respect a woman’s body. 

When most Americans think about “rape culture,” they may think about the Steubenville boys’ defense arguing that an unconscious girl consented to her sexual assault because she “didn’t say no,” the school administrators who choose to protect their star athletes over those boys’ rape victims, or the bullying that led multiple victims of sexual assault to take their own lives. While those incidences of victim-blaming are certainly symptoms of a deeply-rooted rape culture in this country, they’re not the only examples of this dynamic at play. Rape culture is also evident in the attitudes that lead school administrators to treat young girls’ bodies as inherently “distracting” to the boys who simply can’t control themselves. That approach to gender roles simply encourages our youth to assume that sexual crimes must have something to do with women’s “suggestive” clothes or behavior, rather than teaching them that every individual is responsible for respecting others’ bodily autonomy. 

How ‘Slut Shaming’ Has Been Written Into School Dress Codes Across The Country

I agree a dress code shouldn’t only be on the young women nor should the reason be that they are distracting the boys. We should also have discussions with young men about what appropriate behavior should be.

However, the answer shouldn’t be that boys just need to control themselves. I remember when I was a teen and I didn’t automatically know how to control myself. 

I was easily distracted. A gust of wind could stir things up. I remember having morning wood, lunch time wood, afternoon wood, late afternoon wood, evening wood, and depending on the dream – late night wood – all in the same day. Sometimes I would get aroused for no reason at all.

The young man side of this equation needs more effort than simply saying he needs to control himself. He needs guidance from his parents and other adults.

What really got my mind stirred up about this dress code issue is the simple question I asked myself: Why would a young woman in middle school or high school want to wear leggings or yoga pants to school, or strapless dresses with short hemlines to dances?

If I had teenage daughters some of what the ThinkProgress article pointed out wouldn’t be approved by me. Is it necessary for a teen to dress like they are in college? Really?

Teenagers wear certain clothing for a reason. Some might be clued into the fashion world and really think a certain outfit they saw in a ad in Teen Vogue is something that makes them look good even if it is too short or shows too much skin for a 15 year old.

Some teens might wear something because they are looking for attention. Either some kind of subversive message (think of the Goth look) or they may be trying to gain the attention of someone they really like.

The reality is we are all judged by what we wear even if we didn’t intend to send a particular message or don’t care. You wouldn’t wear old jeans and a T-shirt to a job interview at a bank for example.

Teens don’t have much to “show off” to others. One item is clothing. When fashion is more a priority than your next math class then boundaries need to be set. Dress codes is one of those boundaries.

Another option in dress codes that seem to be pretty fair for all genders is requiring uniforms.

According to an article by Hannah Boyd on the website education.com, uniform proponents cite safety as a factor, feeling that campus wear prevents gang members from wearing colors and insignia and makes it easier for security guards to spot intruders. They also repeat stories of students being mugged for designer clothes and expensive shoes—and that’s not only an issue in high-crime areas. Boyd’s article states that middle-class students report peer pressure to buy expensive clothing and students wearing inappropriately sexualized clothing that isn’t conducive to studying.

School uniforms — solution or restriction?

Whatever boundary is set, parents and the school administration need to use it to guide the teens of all genders toward adulthood. 

Isn’t that the point of education.