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Dear Daughter: Dress Codes Violate You

"You will wear your shorts with pride, and I will support you every step of the way"

Published on: May 15, 2014

Tween girl holding phone wearing shorts and t-shirt and standing in front of her school

Dear daughter,

I messed up, big time.

I messed up in a way that was a first for me and you, on something that will matter for many years to come.

That is why I need to get straight on this. I need to right it, so I can help you grow up right.

Last week, we went to the department store to buy you a pair of shorts. The weather had turned warm, (finally!) and you have grown since last year. Your almost-9-year-old body is stretched out, taller, healthy and beautiful, ready for some new clothes. It was my honor and pleasure to abide.

And it was almost Field Day at school. You wanted to wear green or white to represent your team, Nigeria. You were so into being Nigeria!

At the store, we stood looking around from rack to rack. There were lots of shorts, even a few pairs that were green or white.

“How about these?” I asked, holding up a pair of white cotton shorts with pockets and cuffed legs.

“No,” you said, shaking your head, your messy curls swinging. “They don’t fit with dress code.”

The dress code — I had heard something about this. Maybe read something? It seemed vaguely familiar.

“Shorts have to go two inches past your fingers when you stretch your arm down your front,” you told me, stretching your arm down the front of your body to show me. Your middle fingertips landed not that far above your knee.

You turned away to scan another rack.

“Ok,” I said, hanging up the shorts.

We looked and looked, pulling out several more pairs of summer shorts — cotton and denim; shorts by name-brand sporting goods suppliers and unmarked brands whose price was right; some simple shorts that seemed perfect for comfort and movement; some highly decorated shorts with studs and sparkles and intentional frays. Their lengths varied from mid-thigh to shorter.

But none of them seemed to meet the dress code.

Across the aisle, I began eyeing the boys’ clothes: racks and stacks of long, athletic shorts in jersey and quick-dry materials, roomy and built for comfort, in style with what I see boys everywhere wearing. They all met dress code. By a longshot.

“How about these?” I asked, spying a lone pair of girls’ shorts in green with white polka dots. We held them up to your body.

“No,” you said, shaking your head. "Too long." You seemed worried.

So we left empty-handed.

You were disappointed at not being able to dress for Nigeria. I silently wondered how I would ever find knee-length girls’ shorts unless I time-traveled back to 1983 and grabbed me some Bermudas. It'll take some extra work to comply with this rule, I thought obediently.

But you know what, honey? I was wrong.

I was so, so wrong.

I was wrong when I automatically assumed that a dress code that might seem “equal” for both boys and girls on paper but isn’t actually fair in application was something we as a family should accept.

I was wrong when I didn’t tell you immediately that you are strong and beautiful and look absolutely perfect in shorts, and that we will let you wear them innocently and proudly because they are the style of the day, there is nothing wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with your body.

I was wrong when I didn’t stand up for you as a girl and a future woman and model the critical thinking and self-esteem I so want to nurture in you as you navigate these upcoming, crazy, confusing tween and teen years.

Because you know what, my girl? This dress code is bullshit, excuse my French. (You know Mommy is very serious when she uses the 'S' word. Very serious.)

I was wrong when I didn’t see nasty sexism and something-related-to-slut-shaming for what it is (and I know you don’t know that particular S-word yet, my girl, but when you do learn it I promise to talk to you about its insidiousness and about how it makes you feel, and what power you have to do something about that).

I promise to talk to you about your power, and not the unsubstantiated threat your body supposedly poses to the institution and aims of education.

I was wrong when I didn’t exclaim with shock and refusal right there in the store, looking over at the boys’ dress-code-adhering, academically acceptable, non-threatening racks of clothes, that this rule is misguided and not something we should blindly accept.

I know the arguments used to support dress codes like the one you heard about in your school — I have read them in online commentary and heard them argued by people in our own community: That short shorts and dresses, spaghetti straps, sexy outfits are distracting. Disrespectful. Indecent. Unnecessary.

That “you wouldn’t wear a bikini to a funeral” so why should we allow you to dress inappropriately for school?

That the standards apply to both boys and girls. That other items, like saggy pants and obscene or sloganed T-shirts, are also disallowed and impact boys disproportionately, the way the shorts rule impacts girls.

But we are going to reject a majority of those arguments because they are wrong.

You are just starting on your journey, and you don’t yet feel that heavy weight of our sex-obsessed culture that will, any second, begin to tell you that you must, as a girl and woman, be attractive, sexy, perfect, pleasing, yet simultaneously punish you for making your own strong choices, questioning status quo, and embracing your sexuality when you are old enough to understand its power and purpose.

It’s going to get pretty darn confusing for you soon.

A friend of ours — a sophomore at a local high school which had its own controversy this spring about dress code — and her mom broke it down for me the other day.

In middle and high school, it’s applied disproportionately to the girls who are more developed, who have boobs and butts, this high schooler explained. Which means, she said, that someone, somewhere — a school administrator — had to have viewed the supposed offenders in a sexual way in order to select them as inappropriate-looking from the larger pack of shorts- or skirt-wearing girls.

Did you read that right? A teacher saw a student as sexy, maybe even looked around at a group of students to see who, based on the clothing they wore, alerted his or her sexy-girl antennae. And then those particular girls —usually the ones with the developed bodies, my friend and her daughter said — are told to change.

We are claiming to teach morality and decency and sound judgment by publicly shaming girls for the way their developing bodies look in clothes.

Do we really think a teenage boy is going to fail algebra because the girl in the seat next to him has shorts that reach her mid thigh?

And if he is, why is that the girl’s problem anyway?

Why is that your problem, dear daughter?

Well, it’s not.

It's not even about the boys. They are hurt by this hunt for girl skin, too.

But never mind all that now. What you need to know, my girl, is this: There is nothing wrong with shorts. Shorts that reach some place on your thigh. Shorts that don’t show butt cheek or private parts — because on our own good judgment we wouldn’t wear those to school anyway, any more than we would wear a bikini to a funeral (even without a dress code posted).

Do you understand, dear daughter?

We can judge what is appropriate and right. What feels right for you.

You are fine. You are lovely. You are healthy and strong and smart and in charge only of yourself and your own actions, not how boys or men react to you.

You will wear your shorts with pride, and I will support you every step of the way.

I’m sorry I messed that up once, but I never will again.

Editor's note: This story was published in 2014.

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