Q: I’m a teacher in a large school system with a pretty detailed dress code policy. Among the rules are ones stating that students can’t wear straps less than one-inch wide; their bra straps can’t be visible, even when bending or stretching, and cleavage of any kind is totally verboten. We have a male principal who often cites girls for dress code violations. It seems gratuitous, especially when the straps fall just short of that inch, or when a bra strap is momentarily visible. It sexualizes young girls who aren’t trying to be provocative, and frankly, a lot of us find it creepy that a middle-aged man is commenting at all on a 14-year-old girl’s clothing. The principal is a big rule-enforcer in general, so I don’t think he has inappropriate thoughts. Still, the girls will seek me out after they get in trouble because they feel embarrassed. I want to do something about their discomfort and the policy itself, but I’m not sure how to approach this. I think that behind closed doors, the principal and his assistant principal will roll their eyes at me if I say anything. I have a reputation for being an agitator, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right.
A: Rules can become so ingrained over time that they’re unthinkingly accepted. When teachers or other staff members shine a light on unfair policies, there’s at least a chance that they’ll be revisited. In other words, I think your instinct to be vocal is appropriate. If you have a reputation for being an agitator, you might want to rally support from others before expressing concern. It sounds like this has been bothering your colleagues too. When you do approach your principal, be calm and thoughtful. Acknowledge that he didn’t write the rules. Yes, he could choose to let the mild infractions slide, but technically he’s doing his job.
You may need to do some investigating to locate and petition the policy makers. You’ll also want to present a solid argument beyond the fact that it feels creepy and gratuitous. I don’t think that would be hard to do. Dress codes should not be discriminatory. Girls should not be hindered by different rules than boys. Any policy that disproportionately impacts girls’ comfort and movement is unfair. Plus, sexist dress codes are offensive to everyone. They transmit the message that girls are a distraction and that boys can’t control themselves.
If your school system does take a fresh look at its dress code policies, it may want to involve students in the revision process. Adults are more likely to project their own issues onto girls who’re not trying to be provocative. You can create a distraction-free education environment without targeting any one group specifically. Dress code rules that pertain to health, distraction, safety or obscenity don’t have to be gender-specific.
So what now? As part of the fact-gathering process, I’d share the students’ point of view. Respectfully tell your principal that girls are sharing that he’s making them uncomfortable and embarrassed. He might be oblivious and surprised. He also might decide to enforce the rules less vigorously, or pass the responsibility off to a female administrator. These are stopgap measures, but they’d improve the situation in your school.
It’ll take more time to address the dress code policy itself. Whether or not your principal supports your goal, he might be able to guide you to the right people. If you do talk to decision makers, ask questions and be curious, not accusatory. It’s possible that someone already is updating the policy. If that’s not the case, consider tapping other sources of support, such as parents or the school board. And don’t forget your students. Even if their efforts are fruitless, it’s empowering to advocate for change.
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