Yesterday, I posted a decently ranty blog about a Canadian 15 year old who started a teen meltdown over the “rape culture” perpetuated by her school’s dress code, which requires shorts to be fingertip length. This blog, largely inspired by intense frustration that such silliness would distract attention from real issues of rape culture, didn’t really address why school dress codes aren’t as villainous as Lindsey Stocker would have us believe. So now I will go ahead and do that.
I’m going to go ahead and ignore all of my feelings on reasonable dress codes being good for the productivity and future success of students, which you have no doubt heard a million times, in favor of one that you probably haven’t: That dress codes actually help to work against the “rape culture” Ms. Stocker and her friends care so much about.
So why don’t you hear that side of the story? Because the teens who bitch about dress codes being sexist and part of “rape culture” aren’t your average teens. On balance, they don’t suffer from body-conscious issues, and they have a pretty defined sense of style and personal worth when it comes to their appearance. They also have plenty of money.
Take Stocker (pictured), is so confident in her legs that she doesn’t mind the international news media running a picture that shows off about 90 percent of them, and hales from a suburb with a mere 6 percent poverty rate. Because of her very myopic world view and the similar world view of many teens who agree with her (and certainly those that feel confident speaking the loudest), the conversation around school dress codes has been incredibly one sided.
The girls who want to show their thighs are screaming about rape culture, and the girls who are happy to blend into the background with their baggy jeans, sweat pants and school club t-shirts are nowhere to be found. This paints an incredibly distorted picture of high school students, who all seem to be completely happy to dress how they want with no restrictions so they can express their fully-defined sense of style. Well, that’s not how high school works, despite what Stocker and “10 Things I Hate About You” would have you believe.
As a former body-conscious high schooler, let me be the first to say that I legitimately appreciated that my school had a strict dress code that required such things as the finger-tip length shorts Stocker so publicly hates. I didn’t feel pressured to dress a way I didn’t feel comfortable dressing just because my friends did, or because that’s how society told me that I — as a female teen — should have dressed. Because there is a defined sense of that “rape culture” in the way teenage girls are told they must dress in order to fit in. There is a sense (perpetuated by boys and girls) that if you don’t show off your legs, or your boobs or your perfectly flat stomach, boys won’t think you are as pretty or as fun as someone who does. And that’s a bigger problem than requiring finger-tip-length shorts.
The dress code essentially shielded me from feeling completely left out or dorky for wearing the clothes I felt comfortable in — because everyone was require to dress modestly. It wasn’t just me making that decision for myself to stand up to the man, which I definitely wasn’t confident enough to do. If there were no rules, teens would (and do) dress like Ms. Stocker. These, inevitably, are the popular kids. The ones everyone wants to be like, and who set the standard for excellence in all things for the rest of the lowly high school students who would rather be president of the debate team than the cheerleading club. People want to be like these popular kids to feel included and wanted, and so they dress like them even if it makes them feel awful. These are the laws of high school.
So, if you think that a lack of a dress code would simply allow students to express themselves or feel comfortable in their own skin, readjust your expectations — that will only be true for those who are already comfortable in their own skin. Everyone else would just be expected to buy shorter shorts and let their polka-dot bra straps hang out even if they would really prefer to hide.
Stocker and her followers take the stance that the only reason for the dress code to exist is so that boys won’t be distracted, but they fail to recognize how distracted girls are by the same inappropriate wardrobe selections. Girls who are not confident in themselves spend all day staring at your thin legs, or your ample chest, or your flat stomach and feel like they have failed. They feel like they have failed to dress like a teenager, to look like a teenager or to act like a teenager. And that is wrong — for more than just the boys. And the academic and social environment it creates is poisonous.
Aside from physical appearance, let’s consider that the girls who rant and rave about dress codes are all pretty comfortable money-wise. I’m obviously making a huge assumption about Ms. Stocker’s socioeconomic status, but given that her hometown is overwhelmingly white and wealthy (it is only 8 percent minority; only 11.2 percent of children live in single-parent homes; only 5 percent of people are unemployed; and the city boasts an very low 6 percent poverty rate) I’m going to assume that her parents can afford to buy her nice clothes that she likes, or at least that it’s very statistically likely that they can. That’s not the case for all students.
Dress codes are incredibly important for maintaining a sense of dignity and inclusion among students who cannot afford to wear designer shorts from Urban Outfitters, or buy a bra with a fancy strap they don’t mind letting hang out of their tank top. Or even for parents who could afford both of those things but choose to prioritize tuition or family vacations over buying their child a $60 pair of shorts and a $40 bra.
It’s clear that these students completely misunderstand the purpose of a dress code, but on that note it’s time for some self reflection. To the extent that students misunderstand why a dress code exists, it’s because no one has given them a logical reason. Teenagers aren’t stupid. They are just uninformed. And whose fault is that? The administrators of all high schools need to do a better job framing this hugely important issue for students. It is not OK just to tell the kids, “Well, this is the dress code and that’s how it is.” Because that’s how you get teenagers with misunderstandings this large, who define “rape culture” so broadly that it has no real meaning.
While I rant on this blog sometimes, my day job is teaching high school in inner-city Newark. I can tell you from personal experience that there are many wonderful reasons we require our students to adhere to a dress code, and that our students understand them and can talk about them because our conversation about the dress code didn’t stop at “do this.” There is no reason that that someone in Ms. Stocker’s school administration shouldn’t have had a similar conversation with her.