When I was a kid, I often tagged along with my cousin Nancy and her pal Peggy. Although they were five years older than me, they would sometimes indulge my hero worship. On one such occasion, I walked down the street with Nancy to pick up Peggy as the two of them were going to a junior high dance. (I was allowed to come over only to ooh and ahh over their ensembles) As the very tall and very slim Peggy walked out to her front porch in her dress, her dad stopped her, telling her that her dress was far too short and should be just above the knee.
Why, a petulant Peggy asked him, did he always complain about her skirt lengths and not those of her older sister Ellen, who was a lot shorter with a much rounder profile.
“For one thing, I can’t even tell where her knees begin,” her dad replied. “There’s a lot more of you showing.”
I thought about that exchange when my own very tall and slim 11-year-old came home from sixth grade and told me that the principal said her skirt was too short. When she left for school that morning, I hadn’t even considered that she was wearing a skirt in the regular sense as she wore it over leggings/skinny jeans that she already worn to school. She had also worn the leggings earlier with running shorts over them, a Pippi Longstocking look popular with high school girls in the neighborhood. And again, that outfit passed muster.
Despite the obvious inconsistencies — the leggings are OK by themselves or with shorts over them, but you can’t layer a skirt over them – my sixth grader and I both agreed that this was the rule and she would abide by it. But then tonight, she came down to show me a simple, straight-forward T-shirt that she planned to wear tomorrow. “Would the principal think this shirt was see-through,” she asked me.
I wanted to reply, “Only if he wore X-ray glasses,” but I told her that the shirt was fine and that I couldn’t see any danger of it violating the dress code.
Up until three weeks ago, I never had a single discussion with my 11-year-old about the appropriateness of what she was wearing to school that day. She picked her own clothes to wear with little fanfare.
Yet, in the transition to middle school, sixth graders are suddenly confronted with inordinate attention to dress codes and particularly to how girls dress. My newbie middle schooler went from never thinking about what she would wear to school to thinking about it every day.
I don’t like the message that you are what you wear and that an inch this way or that spells the difference between wonk and tart. A researcher on self-image once told me that American girls learn early in life that they are under surveillance 24 hours a day and that the world will make judgments on how they look and project its own biases and fears on them. My neighbor told me that when she went to school in south Georgia, the principal would warn, “Girl, you’re showing too much hide!”
I have gone into high achieving private schools and seen outfits on girls that would get them sent home in public schools. Did the clothing distract the other students? Not based on their scores. There is no evidence that dress codes improve student performance.
I recognize that children turn into adolescents quickly, but we rush the passage when we worry about whether a run-of-the-mill T-shirt crosses the line or whether 11-year-olds with SpongeBob Band-Aids on their knees from climbing trees are showing two inches of thigh or three.