Dear Teenager: Your Dress Code isn’t about Sexism

Dear Teenage Girl

The dress code at your school isn’t about sexism. Enforcing those rules isn’t a form of discrimination.

Click here to read my personal rebuttal to this piece of propaganda. Today, I’m going to address the girl whose school day was interrupted by a trip to the office.

Dear Teenage Girl-

I’m sorry you won’t be able to wear your Jennifer Aniston slip dress at school today. I know that seems so unfair.

Let me direct your attention to the Student Handbook, page 8, section IX. It clearly states that undergarments can’t be showing.

I understand that you aren’t wearing any (yes, this actually occurs at middle school), and because of that you’re violating the next bit. Let me point out the phrase about “skin-tight clothing” that reveals too much of the anatomy.

Is this really about treating girls like sex objects?
Is this really about treating girls like sex objects?

I hope a boy wouldn’t show up wearing that dress, but just yesterday, Jim Smith had to change into pants that wouldn’t drop below his hips because his underwear were showing. This isn’t a discrimination issue.

It’s about a dress code.

School is your job. Jobs have dress codes. If you don’t follow those dress codes, you get written up. You might even get fired.

This meeting has nothing to do with your choice of clothing. It has to do with the fact that you chose to disregard the rules of this school.

I see you have gym this quarter. I’m happy to escort you to the locker room so you can change into your gym clothes.

Oh? You have jeans and a t-shirt in your locker? That’s interesting.

Let’s get those clothes and see if they meet the requirements.


Your School Administrator


The chances this principal will get a call from an irate parent are high. Which underscores the problem with posters (such as the one above) that claim enforcing a dress code is sexist.

What would you say to this girl? Or maybe you’d like to address the administrator.

Next week, I’ll finish this series off with a letter to a teenage boy about this matter.

8 thoughts on “Dear Teenager: Your Dress Code isn’t about Sexism”

  1. While I agree with you about having dress codes, and I think your correlation to a job is spot on, I think that sometimes the administrators go too far with enforcing the codes. To blame the girl for a boy’s possible bad behavior because her bra strap is showing is wrong. Boys should be taught it’s not ok to objectify a girl’s body or snap her bra straps. Period. These things are not ok. To also ask our teens to dress like they are from the 50s is not realistic, either. This is why I’m a huge supporter of uniforms from kindergarten through 12th grade. Kind of hard to break the dress code when the garments are exactly the same for everyone.

    1. Yes, I’m 100 percent for uniforms, but most public schools don’t have them because of the financial concession – some families couldn’t afford to purchase them for their kids.
      I also agree that no one’s body should be treated as an object, but is it really the school system’s job to teach this? Everyone screams about not legislating morality, but then no one wants to be accountable for instructing our younger generation in the difference between right and wrong.
      Next week I have the letter to the boy, and the issue of showing respect is huge in that one.

    2. Jenny-
      I detest the bra strap snapping thing. Although when I worked at the middle school, punching a guy in his “junk” was a way bigger issue.
      I agree that a boy’s bad behavior shouldn’t be blamed on the way a girl dressed (or vice versa- see my response to Kelly).
      Do you think requiring bra straps to be covered and all body parts (not just boobs) to be sufficiently restrained and covered is unrealistic? There are plenty of current fashions that meet school dress codes. When students choose the clothes that cross the line, they’re pushing boundaries, trying to see if the rules really mean anything. Especially if they wear those sort of clothes on weekends.
      Thanks for joining the conversation about this often controversial topic.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Sharon. I’ve been pondering a response worthy of the time and guts it took for you to put yours out there. Not sure if I’ve accomplished that or not, but here it goes.

    When our daughter was 6 or 7, she told us that she didn’t mind doing what we asked, she just wanted to understand why. “Fair enough,” we told her. “If we can’t give you a good reason, then maybe what we’re asking isn’t reasonable.”

    My high school journalism teacher also taught us to ask “why” at least five times while interviewing a subject because it was only after that 5th “why” that you get to the real meat of a story, the real reason behind whatever you’re reporting on. This technique is used in many different fields.

    I haven’t spoken to the principal at my daughter’s high school or the school superintendent about the “whys” behind the district’s dress code, but I bet if I did, we’d end up at something sexual. We may start with “decency” or “distraction,” but we wouldn’t stay there long.

    And while I wouldn’t necessarily say enforcing school dress codes is “sexism” in the hard core sense of the word, school dress codes definitely impact females more than males because males don’t have the same kind of equipment up north that females do. Equipment that school officials have deemed necessary of being covered up…because sex.

    That’s why ever since our daughter was born we’ve been cognizant about how she’s dressed, and we tried to ensure that it was in the least sexualized way possible. That sounds pretty heavy-handed, but what it’s equated to are two simple rules: no shirts that showed her midriff and no shorts or skirts/dresses that showed her butt cheeks. We did this for one simple reason: if she was ever sexually assaulted (and the odds are damn high she will be simply because she’s a female), we wanted her to have one fewer area over which she’d have to defend herself for having “asked for it.” Because that’s exactly what happens. I’m talking from personal experience here, I’m afraid to say.

    But here’s the biggest point I want to make: I think the issue I have with comparing school dress codes with workplace dress codes is that if I don’t like the dress code at my current employer, I can go to work for another employer. We know that dress codes in the workplace vary widely.

    But students are legally required to be in school (per compulsory school attendance laws in every state). They don’t have the same choice that adults do, other than being homeschooled, unless they can find a school without a dress code (good luck with that).

    Regardless, I agree with you–rules are rules. We don’t have to like them, but we have to follow them…or face the consequences if we choose not to. And for that reason alone, for that broader, overarching life-lesson that a dress code represents, I support our school’s.

    1. Kelly-
      Thanks so much for your response.
      I agree that people are entitled to ask “why” something is the way it is. And work to change it if they feel it is unfair. In the interim, flaunting non-compliance isn’t going to win many supporters.
      Do people change jobs because they don’t like the dress code? I seriously hated the polyester uniform I wore at Burger King, but the job helped pay the bills. I didn’t intend to work there forever. Teenagers may THINK they’ll be in school forever and might die from being restricted during that time, but that’s part of their mental makeup. It’s 12 years to follow whatever rules the administration puts in place.
      Also, I have a feeling the dress codes weren’t orginally formed because of sexual stereotypes. I recall what my mom wore to high school and feel that the standards for dress probably haven’t evolved much. Do administrators avoid changing them because of the sex questions? Probably. But I don’t see that as sexism. Like I mentioned in my post, boys were as guilty of ignoring the code as girls (with the whole sagging jeans thing).
      Do I think it’s unfair that women might be considered “loose” based on what they’re wearing? Sure. But that will happen anywhere. An adult woman might be more prepared to deal with those repercussions (commentary, not outright assault) than a teenager, though. As for sexual predators claiming a woman “asked for” rape because her cleavage was showing, what do you expect the perv to say? He’s not going to accept responsiblity for his actions (but that’s a whole different topic).
      I agree with Jenny that bra-strap snapping should not be allowed. Comments of a sexual nature shouldn’t be okay (and boys shouldn’t be allowed to use the way a girl is dressed as an excuse, but that’s really a social nicety that parents should be teaching and schools can -and do- enforce it). And if people want the dress code changed, there are proper channels, but any young adult psychologist will tell you that teens are distractable. And their biggest obsession is sex. Why set them up to fail?

      1. OMG, the polyester uniform!! I wore one at Kentucky Fried Chicken and actually had surgery to avoid wearing it any more. OK, the surgery wasn’t *solely* to avoid wearing the uniform, but man, that greasy, fried-chicken-smelling thing was bad enough to contemplate it!

        Bra-snapping is horrible. It was one of the worst experiences of my middle grade years. Definitely should not be allowed.

        I think we’re on the same page here: “Buck up, kids, and just follow the damn rules.” Rule-following is nothing anyone escapes, no matter how old we are…without those nasty consequences I mentioned.

        Thanks so much for hashing this out with me!

        1. Everyone should have to work a fast food job so they appreciate a “permanent” job when it comes along.
          I am so thankful to have met you and to follow your writing. We are so different…we’re almost alike 🙂

  3. Middle and high school is the time to find yourself and girls should not be taught by dress codes that they have to be careful around the boys because a shoulder or a stomach might distract them. Instead they should teach boys to respect females and not only categorize them as just “body”.

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.