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Opinion: Dress Codes Complicate How Girls Feel

"If God made me, why is it wrong to have a body?”

Published on: May 09, 2018

Body image

My daughters attend schools that have dress codes. That bothers my oldest daughter. It also bothers me. 

I don’t have to look far to back up my irritation. The “New York Times” recently published the story of a 17-year-old Floridian girl who didn’t wear a bra to school because it irritated her sunburn.

Although she wore a dark, loose shirt to detract from her choice, she was pulled from class. She was asked to put on an undershirt and move around in front of an administrator, who told her to tape Band-Aids over her nipples.

That’s a prime example of a school imposing gender-specific requirements based on sex stereotypes, said Meredith Harbach, a University of Richmond law professor who wrote a 2016 paper about sexualization and public school dress codes

“[The school] is foisting this notion that unrestrained breasts are sexual and likely to cause disruption and distract other students,” she told “The Times.”

That messaging, she says, target young women while “deflect[ing] any and all conversation about appropriate mutually respectful behavior in schools between boys and girls.”

In what Harbach says, I hear echoes of the conversations I’ve had with my daughter about her school’s dress code.

“When they talk about my body that way, it makes me feel bad,” my daughter has told me. "If God made me, why is it wrong to have a body?”

I don’t want my daughter to be ashamed of her body. That’s why we practice something we learned from local educator Julie Metzger: Look in the mirror and thank our bodies for being fabulous and strong.

We do this so much that it’s become a family joke: “Oh, are you thanking your fabulous body right now?” 

But guess what? It helps.

Those are the facts and we don’t have to like them. But talking about it makes it bearable.

We also talk about the clothes my daughter is most comfortable in and how she can’t wear them to her school. Bare shoulders are not allowed; shirt sleeves are essential. Those are the facts and we don’t have to like them. But talking about it makes it bearable because the rules at her school mimic the world outside our front door.

Dress codes, we both know, are part of our culture, even when there’s not a dress code in place.

“People are judged on what they wear. This is the world we live in and teens need to know that and make a conscious decision about what they wear,” says Amy Lang, the Seattle-based sexuality educator behind Birds + Bees + Kids

The energy that schools focus on enforcing dress codes would be better spent on talking about consent and how to build healthy relationships, Lang says. “Dress codes are an adult issue and are complicating kids’ lives by making it their issue,” she adds.

At our house, we’ll continue to talk about what dress codes say about the culture we live in. It’s a safe place to wish for the world we want — with or without a bra.

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