Editorial: Fashion Police; The Complexities of School Dress Codes

Published: 5/13/2016 10:00:15 PM
Modified: 5/13/2016 10:00:25 PM

School dress codes are like sleeping giants. That’s according to Alice Worth, superintendent of Windsor Central Supervisory Union, who’s among those dealing with an uproar at Woodstock Union Middle School. The rumbling and grumbling began April 22, when teachers called a girls-only assembly to review compliance with the dress code. Though there is some dispute about what was said at that assembly, accusations of sexism and worse soon followed. The school, which held a public meeting Wednesday, is now reviewing its policy and intends to draft a new set of rules.

Good luck. Dress codes are tricky to write, difficult to enforce and often hard to defend. Woodstock Union Middle School’s dress code, for example, states that students are expected to “dress appropriately,” defined as attire that is “safe, does not call undue attention to the wearer, does not cause a disturbance in the school, does not promote, or seem to promote the use of alcohol, tobacco, or illegal substances, and is not vulgar or profane. Safety, respect for self and others, and freedom from distraction are important aspects of the dress code.” It then goes on to regulate strap width, inseam length and to warn of the dangers of tight-fitting clothing and mesh.

You see the problem. Freedom from distraction inevitably collides with a perceived right to self-expression. Further, girls generally bear the brunt; straps and inseams don’t generally apply to boys.

Yet reasonable rules stipulating what students can and cannot wear seem necessary at a time when almost anything goes. How else to prevent inappropriate choices by fashion-conscious and/or rebellious teenagers? How else to ensure that students focus mainly on class work, not on designer jeans ripped in all the wrong places, provocative T-shirts and exposed flesh?

So, how to proceed? Principal Dana Peterson has set a good example by apologizing for allowing teachers to hold a segregated assembly. Second, the administration must continue listening to the perspectives of the parties concerned — the students and parents who say teachers delivered a biased and potentially damaging message to girls; and the teachers who organized the segregated assembly, a regrettable but perhaps understandable misstep.

For argument’s sake, let’s give the teachers involved, all women, the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they sought to exclude boys in order to limit any embarrassment girls might feel talking about clothes and their bodies. Or maybe they hoped to promote discussion in a single-sex setting. It’s also possible they had in mind some of the disturbing trends described in Peggy Orenstein’s best-seller Girls & Sex, which addresses fashion in the context of the rocky social landscape girls must navigate.

Whatever the teachers’ motivation, the strategy backfired, and so did their message. Apparently remarks veered from dress code violations to the more politically perilous suggestion that female dress affects males — a loaded subject. According to accounts of the April meeting, girls were made to feel responsible not only for distracting boys but for boys’ unacceptable behavior, which apparently includes standing under the stairs to look up girls’ skirts. Little wonder that some interpreted the message as not only biased but punitive. Some said they were made to feel uncomfortable about their bodies.

In hindsight, a co-ed assembly to talk about how fashion and dress affect social and sexual behavior would have been more instructive. It’s not too late. One way to redress grievances is to keep the conversation going, this time involving boys. Dress codes, after all, aren’t only about dress. They’re implicitly about sex, power and social norms. Indeed, critics contend they perpetuate gender stereotypes and male dominance. Whether or not you agree, you can begin to see the giant lurking inside the middle school handbook and why it might stalk Woodstock for some time.

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