Dress code enforcement obsession

I’ve worked in a number of high schools, both public and private. I also went to high school myself (obviously). In every school, there were always a handful of teachers or staff members who were obsessed with punishing (or at least commenting incessantly about) violations of the student dress code. I don’t think it’s appropriate for female students to dress in revealing clothing at school (what they do outside is their business). Same deal for boys showing off their underwear with saggy pants around their ankles (again, what they do outside of school is a different story). School is a place to learn. It isn’t a fashion show venue. There is a certain level of respect you show your teachers and fellow students by dressing appropriately and—unless you have to wear a uniform—there usually remains a great deal of leeway for you to express your individuality.

Nevertheless, I find this obsession with dress code enforcement to be disturbing also. Is her skirt too short? Is that girl showing off too much cleavage? Do I really want to see his polka dot boxers? These are all legitimate questions, but ultimately we as teachers and staff should focus on the task at hand, which is getting students to learn. And even though enforcement-obsessors are always careful to throw in the token mention about boys, the policing does seem to be very much about what girls (and much less so about boys) can and cannot wear, and that is ringing all the feminist sirens in my left-leaning brain. Is it empowering to dress in almost nothing, knowing that you’re probably doing that just to take advantage of how society sexually objectifies women and rewards women who embrace that sexual objectification? No. But is it a feminist act to obsess about and police the way women dress? I don’t think so, either.

To be honest, I really don’t notice it. If a student were wearing a wet t-shirt or only a g-string, of course I’d be fashion police in a second myself. But often I hear other adults commenting to me randomly (even interrupting a worthwhile discussion we were having about curriculum or logistics and scheduling) “That skirt is too short” or “Did you see what she’s wearing? That is not okay.” In some cases, there is just the shake of a head. In other cases, the faculty or staff member will actually leave our conversation and actively police the girl right away. In those situations, I wasn’t thinking, “Yes, it was too short. I thought I was the only one who noticed.” I was honestly thinking, “Weren’t we talking about something else? I didn’t even notice until you pointed it out.” I’m not in the habit of looking students up and down.

Leaving aside how sociologically problematic this constant vigilance about particularly what girls wear is, on a sheer practical level, I just feel there are other things to focus on. I’m a big fan of the cliché “You have to pick your battles.” And especially with teenagers, you do. I was a teenager once. Did my parents say something about everything I did that they disapproved of? No. We would have gotten into a million more fights then. They picked their battles and showed me what really mattered to them. I’d love it if every student dressed appropriately for school. I’d love it. Really. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’d rather focus on them doing their work, having patience with and helping other students who do not learn as quickly as they do, participating in class and extracurriculars, picking up after themselves, and learning to think critically. Call me new-fashioned, but if students can do all that, they can dress however they want.

Further Reading
School dress codes: Necessary or sexist?
Distracting Dress Codes

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10 Comments

  1. Is it male or female teachers that tend to obsess about dress code? or does that not have much bearing?

  2. That’s a good question. In my limited experience, it seems to be about an even gender divide… mostly heterosexual, though. I haven’t heard too many lesbian or gay teachers (out ones, anyway) comment on dress code violations.

  3. Lovely piece. I’m surprised your blog isn’t ‘higher circulation’ with all the insightful social commentary you do.

  4. Every friday at my school we have a “spirit day” where everyone dresses up in orange and black. This is also where the faculty completely ignores the dress code, as long as it fits the color scheme. You can pretty much see what I’m getting at.

  5. I think they are just trying to “protect” the girls. At least during school hours.

    Same reason my dad would still warm my 36 year old sister that her skirt is too short: he doesn’t want her to be seen as “that kind of” woman.

    Students should be paying attention to the teachers; what they are learning, not the girl’s legs on the next desk.

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