An Oath to Change: When dress codes go too far

By J1 Reporter: Daisy Owen

“She would reach into our shirts, pull our bra strap up, and snap it onto our skin,” said Marian junior Julia Hedge*.

“In fifth grade, we had to start changing [into a gym uniform] for P.E. class, and at this time girls were developing and starting to wear bras. We had this one religion teacher who was really strict about enforcing this specific rule that the school had, which was that girls couldn’t wear any colored bras, only white bras because we had white shirts for our uniform—and you could sometimes see the straps through the shirts. Well, she would come up to us if we weren’t wearing a white bra, reach into our shirt, pull our bra strap up, and snap it onto our skin and say ‘Go change your bra,’ and we’d go into the clinic and they’d have extra bras for girls to change into.”

Luckily, Hedge never had to experience this humiliation, but she had many classmates who did. “It didn’t happen to me because my mom only bought me white bras,” the junior said.

These are fifth graders, barely even in middle school, and they are already being sexualized by adults. At only 10 years old, Hedge and her friends had repeatedly experienced, and witnessed, complete violations of personal space and privacy; yet, at the time, they were completely unaware that their teachers’ actions were wrong.

“We didn’t even know that this [wearing colored bras] was a bad thing,” Hedge said. “And I don’t think a lot of us told our parents either, because when you’re little you just assume ‘Oh, the adult is always right’ and you don’t know the difference between a bad adult and a good adult; you just think that everybody is doing their part in society and doing the right thing, but nope.”

Another shocking part of Hedge’s story is that the theology teacher [who pulled the bra straps] was a woman. A research statistic reports that women receive more criticism for their attire than men do, yet as many of these circumstances go to show, female educators enforce dress codes just as often as their male counterparts. In Figure 2, it can be concluded that no matter which race or ethnicity, females are coded up to three times as often as males.

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A different student also had a distasteful experience with a female faculty member. Though these confrontations seem uncommon, Hedge isn’t the only one with an embarrassing story about her previous school’s dress code.

Freshman Cara Bailey* was confronted regarding the length of her shorts, but instead of conforming, she decided to push the limits and test her theory about why her school was so strict about the policy.  

“One day I was walking out of lunch and the vice principal, instead of pulling me aside, said to me in front of all my friends ‘You’re going to have to unroll your shorts or go home and change’, although they [the shorts] were down to my fingertips—the required length.”

So the next day, she wore her shortest pair of shorts, just to see if the vice principal would notice, but she didn’t.

“It just goes to show how ridiculous the code was and how even if you were following the rules, you could still get in trouble,” said Bailey.

Bailey and her friends believe that the teachers would call students out primarily because they wanted other people to know that’s a rule, not that he or she was necessarily breaking it.

“It was also really embarrassing because all of my friends were there,” said the Marian freshman.

As these two instances show, dress code policies are enforced in many instances, whether it be large and small scale, and are not unfamiliar to Nebraska schools.

When she was in 8th grade, Lewis and Clark Middle School student Sabina Eastman was inspired by the popular debate over dress codes; she became so involved with the issue that she decided to speak at an Omaha Public Schools board meeting in Feb. 2015.

Kincaid Johnson, one of her former classmates and a current Marian senior, spoke out about Eastman’s experience with their school’s policy.

One of the rules at Lewis and Clark was that if you wore leggings then you had in-school suspension for an entire day, Johnson said.

“One of my friends [Sabina Eastman], who had a test first hour, wore leggings to school; since she was not following the dress code, the principal made her mom drive from work to her house to get her pants and bring them to her at school. And after all of this, she missed her test.”

Because of the severity of her situation, Eastman was interviewed about the issue for the Omaha World-Herald.

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Though these situations may seem utmost, sometimes it’s only the small regulations in dress policies that frustrate people, such as the minimum length required for socks.

“They’re unusually strict about the height and color of socks, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but here [at Marian] it’s like a really big deal,” said Rachel Clark* regarding Marian’s sock policy.

Another reason Marian students dislike the dress code is that their favorite types of shoes are banned because they expose their toes and heels.

“Birkenstocks should be legal,” senior Aleah Ramsey* says, “it’s ridiculous.”

There are numerous stories about cases in which school dress codes have gone too far, severely punishing girls for wearing something that the student believed was modest or morally correct.

School dress codes still target female students, although it may be unintentional, calling them out in the middle of a class and embarrassing them in front of their peers. Through hashtags (#IAmMoreThanADistraction, created by a group of New Jersey students to bring awareness to their school’s double standards), Twitter posts, protests, and petitions, this controversial debate has inflamed over the past few years.

Tiffany Fahey, a female student at St. Charles Catholic Elementary School in Sudbury, Ont., was interviewed by Radio-Canada about how she challenged her school’s dress policy.  By doing this, she hoped to not only change the code, but to also serve as an opportunity for the school’s staff and students to learn about the process of advocating for change. Like most advocates, she was inspired because of a prior experience in which her outfit was called “a distraction to the boys”. It was her shorts that got her in trouble, even though it was a hot Wednesday in her school which does not have air conditioning.

Fahey even put posters on her locker that said: “We go to a school where the length of my shorts is more important than my education”.

“It’s time that we need to update these dress codes to support the girls, not shun the girls,” Fahey said. “They [girls] have rights. They have a right to education and a right to be proud of their body, and not have to be persecuted or made to feel ashamed of it.”

* names have been changed to protect the identities of the students

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Photo: Halfpoint, Getty Images/iStockphoto

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