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Down on dress codes: Why are girls treated as 'mere distractions?'

To borrow from Lord Tennyson, in the spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of shoulders, collar bones and knees. That's apparently why schools are so intent on getting young women to cover them all up.

Sprung from North Face vests and American Eagle leggings by the warmer temperatures, girls are displaying arms, legs and shoulders and running afoul of school dress codes that hold female students responsible for distracting male classmates.

So schools are dispatching girls to in-school suspension or yanking them out of class to sit in the office and wait for mom to bring a change of clothing.

In one Texas school, a 5-year-old girl had to don a T-shirt and jeans because her beloved striped dress had spaghetti straps. Writing about his young daughter's experience in the Houston Press, journalist Jef Rouner said:

Even this little girl was dress coded.

Make no mistake; every school dress code that is not a set uniform is about policing girls and girls alone.

We still live in a country where someone can decide the shoulders of, and I can't stress this enough, a 5-year-old girl are so distracting that they must be sent away and decently hidden. God knows what could possibly happen to her if not.

My local high school loosed a burst of dress code enforcement last week that prompted female students to gently protest. Girls wore signs asking, "Is the length of my shorts more important than my education?" And "Stop the sexualization of teenagers." Some boys showed solidarity by rolling up their shorts or wearing tank tops.

This photo shows one of the teens corralled in the local crackdown. Not even Sister Irene Margaret, the principal of my strict Catholic high school, would have winced at this simple tunic dress.

In fact, when the teen went to the office with the other offenders rounded up, cooler heads prevailed, deemed her in compliance and allowed her to go back to class. But not before she missed a lot of it.

This student's experience illustrates the flaw in school dress codes; enforcement is random, inconsistent and inexplicable.

Dress codes almost exclusively speak to girls, and what they tell them is decidedly negative: You are responsible for what boys think and do. Yes, boys can wear shorts when it is 98 degrees but you better think twice about exposing your knees and legs.

It is not only students who chafe at irrational dress codes, but educators forced into the position of judging whether a student's attire is too sexual. We are treated to news reports of male principals on their hands and knees measuring girls' skirts.

A teacher friend said she noticed it was typically tall girls being cited for the length of their shorts or skirts. Almost 6 feet herself, the teacher said girls were penalized for their body types.

Writing about a well publicized British Columbia case of a girl sent home for a tank top, Shauna Pomerantz of Brock University said 15-year-old Marcia's transgression was not that she wore anything outside of the norm at her school for girls. Her crime was her body type.

Speaking of the case, Pomerantz said, "She was punished for having the wrong kind of (“fat,” “messy”) body in an article of clothing that was not considered inappropriate on other kinds of (“thin,” “neat”) bodies."

Author of the book "Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part," Pomerantz writes:

Her duty, this discourse implies, was to patrol the borders of morality in the school, entailing among other things keeping male sexual urges in check. Her job was to be an example of control and will power...But more than a negation of a feminine duty to the school, this discourse signifies that the boys and men cannot be held responsible for their inability to concentrate and that it is the girls’ job to make sure the boys are not agitated, confused, or “horny.” One angry young woman, hearing this discourse in the news repeatedly, responded thus: “So let me get this straight. Men are physical human beings, and women are mere distractions?"

Good question. Anyone care to answer? (For another take on dress codes, look at this story on uniform policies.)

To understand how girls feel, watch this student-created documentary on how dress codes shame young women:





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.