On Agency and Dress Codes

(This is going to be a post where a lot of you disagree with me.)

I am the dress code enforcer.  I spent three years at my last school making sure that sweaters always covered butts, that shorts had inseams, and that boobs were fully contained. Anyone who knows me knows I love clothes.  I love fancy skirts and high rise jeans and shoes of all types.  I love new fashions and the return of old.  So, while I listen to other teachers say, “I just don’t notice dress code,”  I, instead, notice all the clothes, see the infraction, and spend the rest of the period thinking, “dress code, dress code, dress code.”

So, for three years, I said something, each and every time. It almost always started with, “I need you to go change.” It almost always resulted in an argument.  Nine of ten times the student was convinced that their outfit was fine, that their shorts were cute, that their sweater absolutely 100% covered their butt, and that I was doing this to be a jerk.  I wasn’t though.  I was doing it because in my head I thought I need to teach them how to dress appropriately. ::vomit::

I’m going to digress for a moment and I hope you will stay with me.  About a month ago I was having a conversation with my brother and a friend of his and it wound around as long conversations tend to do and got to the topic of body hair.  Both my brother and his friend immediately said that they would happy change any of that for a partner, whereas I was a firm no.  I wasn’t sure why but I was pretty sure I wasn’t willing to do that.  The conversation continued to dating where brother’s friend say he would never date anyone who was pro-life.  He said it was just against what he believed and that was where it hit me.  I wouldn’t change my body hair.  I wouldn’t date anyone who was pro-life.  I wouldn’t give away any of my hard earned agency(1) over my body.

Women and girls spend years being told what their bodies should look like.  What their hair should do.  What their feet, boobs, eyes, lips, teeth should look like.  How much of them they should show, how much of them they should hide. And those messages don’t agree with each other.  At school boobs covered.  On a date boobs out.  Smile and greet people sometimes, other times you should put your head down and avoid eye contact.

It has taken me 28 years to really feel some sense of agency over my body and what I do with it.  So as of today I am no longer enforcing dress code. I am no longer telling teenage girls what to do with their bodies.  I am happy to sit down with them and talk about media influence and why people believe we need dress codes but I am not their mothers, sisters, or aunts. I am not them.  I would really like to provide opportunities for my students to come to this on their own. I certainly refuse to impede it.

(1) definition of agency: a means of exerting power or influence; instrumentality.

5 thoughts on “On Agency and Dress Codes

  1. This, exactly this. The disconnect between teaching young women body positivity and dressing “appropriately” hurts. I’d love to hear about Bree’s dress policy, too!

    Do you think there’s a place for conversation with girls when they choose to dress in a way incongruent with their intended presentation? We spend a lot of time at my school talking about our dress code (supposedly) teaching the children to dress professionally. For example, I think there’s a huge difference between “cover your butt” and “this is what we mean by ‘business casual’.”


  2. This is a fascinating and very timely topic for me. I too am practicing refraining from reacting and am trying to make sense of the distinction I notice between “agency” and “acting out.”

    I notice a lot of our girls acting out (for whatever reason) with what I would consider to be inappropriate dress, and I am refusing to engage with this attention-seeking behavior. I refrain from engaging because I want my relationship with them to be about their amazing mathematical minds and capabilities and NOT about all of that.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and heartfelt post.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)


  3. Here’s the text from our School Handbook:

    We value dressing intentionally for school, with the goal of creating and maintaining a safe, kind and respectful learning environment. We aspire to live by the precepts that guide our thinking around our mindful approach to dress; we value the importance of boundaries, we value respecting ourselves and our
    friends in relationship, we don’t misuse sexuality. We also feel it is important that families discuss these issues and enforce their own boundaries on what is appropriate for their children to wear to school.

    The guidelines we enforce in this dress policy are meant to ensure the health and safety of members of the community.

    • Students must be fully clothed at all times on campus and during school-sponsored activities (clothing is defined by upper body wear, footwear, underwear, and lower body wear)
    • Students may not wear clothing or carry possessions that display drug, alcohol, violent, or sexual references.

    As a mindful community, we also recognize that there are societal issues around dress that influence the clothing choices that our students make. We are concerned about cultural pressures around body image that hypersexualize and objectify young people. In establishing this dress policy, we acknowledge
    that dress codes can often reinforce sexist stereotypes and messages, disproportionately targeting young women and drawing unnecessary attention to their bodies. We seek to address these concerns as educational opportunities by having conversations with individual students and having community-wide
    education, rather than having a disciplinary response with individual students. We are committed to educating students about the role of dress as it relates to individual expression, functionality and cultural (including workplace) norms.


  4. What about school uniforms? One knee-jerk reaction is that these are a symptom of an authoritarian, Big-Brother-is-Watching school that is crushing its students into a standardized mold. At our school, though, it just means one fewer fraught decisions for the kids in the morning, while they are still free to express themselves through their words and actions.


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