Fixing girls’ dress codes won’t fix the problem

First things first: welcome back to Swarthmore, everyone! The summer has given me quite the wealth of topics to write about, at least until all that can be said has been said and there’s no point in reiterating all the issues, and that’s why I’m picking the least important of all of them — grade school dress codes.

Stories about unfair dress code violations in little-known towns seem to be a staple of public interest news. Every other month or so we’ll hear about the middle school girl who wanted to shave her head to support a friend with cancer but was threatened with suspension by the school administration, or, more recently, about the Native American boy whose long hair didn’t stand up to the school’s regulations. The general reaction to them seems to be a very appropriate public cry of “Bullshit!” and then the story fades away into yesterday’s news.

More recently, stories have been focusing on school dress codes from a more social-justice-centric standpoint — schools are accused of sexist slut shaming for their rules against short skirts or cleavage-exposing tops; the situation with the Navajo boy has led to the school being called racist. Even though it’s not like racism and slut-shaming of teenaged girls doesn’t exist, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to go about contending with the dress code issue simply because they seem to be part of a laundry list of symptoms of a more generalized problem that should be addressed in and of itself as opposed to picking out specific details that one doesn’t like.

Many schools seem to lack a sense of personal judgment and common sense as appliedto the “discipline” of all of the students, so it doesn’t seem like much would be accomplished in the long run if people only focused on one group of students affected by one specific code of conduct. It’s too microcosmic in scope compared with the larger issue to do much good. If one dress code rule deemed sexist gets changed, it would most likely just make room for another suspiciously similarly worded dress code rule to take its place the next school year.

The rules themselves are not the problem — it’s the simultaneously zero-tolerance yet hypocritical enforcement of the rules that is the problem.  The school system is a very bureaucratic one, and both public and private schools fall victim to all the red tape involved in being in charge of the well-being of a large group of children. Anything that could conceivably lead to some kind of trouble or vague personal grievance is to be avoided because it’s a nightmare to deal with. At the end of the day, it’s administrators who are under a needless amount of bureaucratic pressure and trying not to get in hot water, so I can understand the rule enforcement oversight that leads to them taking things too far and being far too uncompromising.

They want to avoid the slippery slope, which is understandable. They are dealing with children and teenagers, after all — two groups of people who are rather notorious for taking a mile when given an inch. There’s a reason that school uniforms are so prevalent — they get rid of the major issues. I don’t approve of how schools typically seem to go too far in the opposite direction, but it has roots in administrative problems outside of oversimplified claims of discrimination. Schools take it too far for everyone, not just some specific group of disadvantaged people.

I doubt that the white kids are allowed to have long hair in that Navajo kid’s school either. Most schools don’t let boys wear shorts or shirts with pictures on them. The cheerleaders get to wear their cheerleading uniforms on Fridays, but they would still get in trouble for wearing a short skirt any other day of the week. Unnatural hair colors, weird hair styles, and piercings aren’t necessarily a gendered or racial thing, but those are still typically strictly prohibited. If the argument is that the dress code should be changed for specific people to be able to do specific things to avoid some kind of -ism, that misses the point of trying to fix flawed rules because they’re flawed and ultimately results in fixing flawed rules because people’s reaction to them wasn’t ideal.

As I mentioned before, the rules aren’t even all that terrible  in theory . They’re essentially a code of conduct — certain behaviors are acceptable and some aren’t; some clothing is presentable and appropriate for what is primarily an academic learning environment and some is not. It’s difficult to argue against the general idea that looking presentable for the environment that one is in is a good thing. It’s basic social grace. Short skirts and sagging pants are arguably not appropriate for the academic environment that schools want to cultivate, just as casual clothes probably aren’t going to be appropriate in an office setting.

The issue arises when the idea of “looking presentable” is enforced beyond all human reason just because the rule book says something isn’t good so it must never be good, no exercise of personal judgment or common sense needed. Mindless enforcement of any idea without discretion leads to a litany of school administrators doing of terribly stupid things that can’t really be confined to any one group of people. If one group of people wants to complain about it, I’m all for it, but I feel like it would be more constructive to the conversation to use the venue to voice some more generalized concerns, since there are indeed generalized concerns to be had that need to be addressed first before anything else gets done

One thought on “Fixing girls’ dress codes won’t fix the problem

  • September 7, 2014 at 7:06 pm
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    I agree with Brianna. Dress code at school is not different than a dress code at work. Schools are trying to make a casual yet proffesional learning environment for students. Kids these days are wearing less and less clothing, but that wont be acceptable at work. High school is a preparation for life, since once the students graduate, thats where they’re headed, and there will be a dress code no matter what field of work they enter, whether its an office job, military, or construction- there is a dress code.

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