The Problem With High School Dress Codes

When I was in early high school, about fourteen or fifteen years old, I had a thing for a look that I thought of as punk-business attire. I wore a lot of black dress pants, white, long-sleeved button-down shirts, sometimes ties when I could figure out how to not tie them in a way that simply looked like a heavy knot by my throat. Overall, I wore a lot of really formal, really modest clothes, but with my piercings, black eye shadow, and occasional safety pin or mesh glove to give it a bit of an edge. In retrospect, I don’t know if it was necessarily a good look, but it was most certainly a step in building my identity at a young age. And, furthermore, it was not necessarily a look that I would have expected to be slut shamed for.

Because, you see, the thing is that I was about fourteen or fifteen years old at the time. I was still growing, still developing. My body was gaining more shape, my breasts and hips becoming larger, and it didn’t take long for clothes to just not fit me the way that they should. I’d buy a new long-sleeve button down shirt, and it seemed the very next week that it was straining to contain me. It didn’t seem fair that I had to stop wearing a perfectly good shirt when I had only just bought it, and so I wore it anyway.

Until one day in grade nine, when I arrived at my math class, and before I could even sit down, my teacher told me that I needed to leave and put on a sweater.

Now, keep in mind – I’m wearing a long-sleeve, collared shirt. You can’t see my cleavage. You can’t see my shoulders. You can’t even see my bra strap (all of which would later become regular parts of my wardrobe, but at this time, it just wasn’t). By all rights, I should have been covered enough to slide by the restrictive high school dress code with ease. I hadn’t even considered being told that I needed to put on a sweater, and so I told this teacher that I didn’t have one – because, really, I didn’t.

“Go to the office then and they’ll lend you a sweater for the day,” my teacher said.

But at this point, I thought she was just being ridiculous. There was nothing wrong with my outfit! I was dressed well enough to work in any decent business office – maybe not with all the punk attire, no, but remove the black eyeshadow and facial piercings and I was good to go. So I did the only logical thing and refused to go to the office.

“Well, you need to put something on. Everyone can see your stomach and it’s distracting.”

My stomach was the offending party here? I will admit that, yes, the shirt I was wearing was a tiny bit small on me (because, again, growing girl and all), but it was little more than an inch between my shirt hem and my dress pants. If I was mindful enough to keep pulling my shirt down, you wouldn’t even notice it.

So, again, I refused.

At that point, my teacher made a deal with me: if I would stand in front of the whole class, raise my arms above my head, and spin around, and if everyone was in agreement afterwards that my outfit passed the dress code, then I didn’t have to go to the office to get a sweater. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get a sweater, no matter what the class said, but I did it anyway, the class awkwardly agreed that I was fine, and I scooted back to my seat with my face burning, vowing to never again wear what had once been my favourite button-down shirt.

Now, this story has a better ending than other stories I’ve heard from girls who have been slut shamed by their teachers for what they’re wearing. I wasn’t sent home, and at the end of the day, I wasn’t forced to put a sweater on. But my point in telling this story is to respond to all those people who say that high school dress codes are not restricting. That girls are not called out more than boys, that these dress codes are there to teach children how to dress and behave responsibly in the workplace, and that they are necessary and non-oppressive. Because in this scenario, I followed the school dress code maybe a little too well. I was literally dressed for the office, but I was still called out publicly by an adult in authority for committing the crime of being a growing girl who couldn’t afford to replace her wardrobe every week. I still had time taken out of class, time that could have been spent actually helping me understand math (which I still don’t) so that I could instead stand in front of my peers and have them scrutinize my body, watch that tiny strip of flesh between my shirt hem and my dress pants to decide whether or not the boys will actually be able to do their work properly with that revealed.

And the thing is, even if I wasn’t dressed properly, even if everyone could see my bra strap (something that would later become a regular part of my wardrobe, but that I was never called out on, despite it being against the school dress code), the teacher still didn’t have the right to interrupt class and humiliate me in front of my peers like that. She had no right to parade me in front of them like a show horse, to make them come to the conclusion of whether or not my appearance was appropriate for me to continue learning.

Because girls bodies are not as distracting as these sort of teachers think it is. The fact that I was later able to show off my bra straps in school and no boys ever complained that they couldn’t concentrate because of it proves that. The fact that I, as a bisexual woman who is now in university, can sit beside a woman with her cleavage exposed and still somehow (magically) get my work done proves that. The problem is not these girls or their bodies and/or clothes. The problem is the teachers who interrupt their student’s learning to slut shame teenagers who are still struggling to become confident in their changing bodies and developing styles. The problem is teachers who indirectly tell the boys in their class that girls’ bodies are a distraction to them, and these girls need to be punished for it. The problem is that we live in a world where girls are not allowed to do something as natural and as human as try out a new style, or explore their personality through their appearance, or hell, even grow, without adults telling them that they are wrong for it.

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