Ethics Quiz: Targeted Dress Coding


Yoga pants,  leggings, and other form-fitting outer-wear for girls are causing controversies among students, parents and school administrators. Some of the controversies are, frankly, wrong-headed. Here is an excerpt from an indignant letter sent to an Evanston (Illinois) middle school that banned the fitted lower-wear as inappropriate:

“This kind of message lands itself squarely on a continuum that blames girls and women for assault by men.  It also sends the message to boys that their behaviors are excusable, or understandable given what the girls are wearing.  And if the sight of a girl’s leg is too much for boys at Haven to handle, then your school has a much bigger problem to deal with.”

Ugh. Once again, we confront the burgeoning attitude that “don’t be an idiot” translates into making excuses for jerks. School girls need to learn where and when it is appropriate to send sexual messages (and how such messages are sent), or else they will be getting notes like this one when they are theoretically adults. Telling school girls that certain kinds of garb and make-up are not for the classroom is both responsible and reasonable. That is the message, and “assault by men” is not the issue in middle school. The issue is distracting from learning. The letter concludes…

“Girls should be able to feel safe and unashamed about what they wear.  And boys need to be corrected and taught when they harass girls.”

Well, let’s just let them come to school naked, then! School has a legitimate function of teaching students appropriate boundaries, both boys and girls. This is the “My Little Pony” issue, in a different form. There, the lesson is 1) don’t tolerate the bullies and 2) don’t gratuitously encourage and provoke them either. For “bullies,” substitute “middle school sexual harassers.”

The related controversy, and the topic of this weekend’s ethics quiz, is targeted “dress-coding,” in which some girls are told that their leggings are distracting and inappropriate, whereas other, less, uh, distracting teens are not. The same parents who wrote the letter above are complaining that only sexually-developed girls are being told not to wear the pants. From Chicago Now:

“Four Haven 7th graders were talking about the leggings ban with Juliet Bond [one half of the letter-writing parental unit, and a gender studies professor (Surprise!)] , who asked if any girls in particular are targeted by teachers for violating the dress code. “Yes,” the girls all responded, “The girls that are developed are the ones that get dress-coded. “Bond, a LCSW who teaches Gender Studies at Columbia College, tried to clarify, “Do you mean that the girls without boobs are not getting dress-coded?” The girls all replied. “Yes.  That’s what is happening.” Just last week, a 7th grader with a curvy build came home upset about this.  She had worn an outfit with a skirt and leggings, and in the morning, a teacher had said to her, “Cute outfit.”  But then her homeroom teacher pulled her aside at the end of the day and said, “You know, another girl could get away with that outfit, but you should not be wearing that.  I’m going to dress code you.”  Juliet Bond and the child’s mom were discussing the incident, not certain if the message to the child was ‘you’re too sexy’ or ‘you’re too fat.’…The kids also report that the teachers have been discussing ‘appropriate body types for leggings and yoga pants and inappropriate body types for yoga pants and leggings.’

Bond says, “This is concerning because it is both slut shaming and fat shaming.  If a girl is heavy or developed, the message is that she cannot wear certain clothes.”  Neither is acceptable.  We should not be sexualizing kids, nor should we be making them feel that they can wear leggings as long as they remain stick thin.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Is “targeted dress coding” ethical in schools?

I wouldn’t answer this one too fast, if I were you. Schools are supposed to teach life skills, and the world isn’t fair: the same outfit that will pass as appropriate workplace garb on the average woman will spark a meeting with HR when the wearer is built like Scarlet Johansson. If a school tells a well-endowed 13-year old that it’s time to buy a bra, must it make her prepubescent friend wear one too?

Of course, it would be a tougher quiz if any faith in the judgment of teachers and school administrators was justified; unfortunately, harsh reality and sad experience tells us such faith is delusional. Thus dress codes, themselves reasonable, are only ethical if universally enforced. “Targeted dress coding,” which theoretically has some merit, is too ripe for abuse. Juliet Bond, I think, is half-right.


Pointer: Advice Goddess

Facts:  Chicago Now, Jezebel

28 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Targeted Dress Coding

  1. Yes, ethical and appropriate.

    Different forms of dress are acceptable depending upon the age and physical development of the kid. For example, where I’m from, no one thinks twice about letting toddlers run around bare-assed on the beach or on the yard; these are safe areas and the parents are always there. Obviously, as kids get older, that’s no longer acceptable.

    Its funny – when I was in middle and high school, it was almost a competition to see who could have the funkiest clothes – the jeans with the coolest patches, the tee shirt with the most holes. Today, the competition seems to be in the other direction – the most upscale, the most provocative.

    There are times when I think that school uniforms aren’t a bad idea. Obviously, there are some kids who, through happenstance of genetics, can make those look better than others. Even so, eliminating the caste implications – to say nothing of the sexualization aspect – of having some kids dressing cooler than others would, it seems, remove one aspect of social pressure from the school environment.

    Meantime: a tee shirt is a tee shirt, right? If a girl were to select one a size or two too small to highlight her breasts, or a boy were to cut one off to reveal his chiseled abs and biceps, that introduces a distraction into and environment that’s NOT about social pressure but IS, allegedly, about preparing kids with life skills.

    Basic dress code rules need to be in place, but school staff should always have discretion in the enforcement thereof (though I hear you on the dangers of that).

  2. Kids can and do enforce their own dress code and their methods are not civilized.
    Making an effort to diminish the carnage is one of our responsibilities as adults. Being a part of the destruction is a dereliction of duty. No tolerance rules are worse than no rules. Kids need to learn how to deal with the world and nuances are not too subtle for them to understand. In fact, they are essential to understand. Some things are absolute. Most things aren’t. Dress codes aren’t.

  3. So…today parents don’t care how their kid looks when leaving the house?
    More than once as a teen I was told to get back in the house and put something else on.

    • There was a funny scene in a late “Seventh Heaven” season where the minister-father stopped his middle daughter was she prepared to go to school in a cleavage-bearing blouse and stapled the two sides together, rendering her less yummy to her male classmates.

    • I am frequently amazed at the clothing that parents permit. I do have to admit, though, that I can’t think of any time when I’ve seen a boy dressed in a way that I would consider inappropriate. Many times, we parents do and ought to encourage free expression which sometimes extends to clothing. But the production of so many items of clothing for little girls which echo the over-sexualized attire of mostly celebrities and characters on TV and in movies has encouraged a culture of anything goes. It all seems so cute when you dress your 3-year-old little girl in a halter top or low-cut pants, but those styles shouldn’t seem like good choices for teens in school or the workplace, especially once puberty occurs. I think sometimes we become ignorant of the concept of “appropriateness,” whether in clothing or behavior or whatever, due to over-saturation in various media of incidents of inappropriateness followed by no consequences. I refuse to believe that it’s just a matter of taste, because too many people believe in the maxim de gustibus non est disputandum. Children used to play dress-up to pretend that they were the adults they see wearing the grown-up clothing. My bottom line is that children (including teenagers) only rarely should look like adults (I remember my son at 7 years old in an adorable little suit for his First Communion; he’s now an atheist), because the precious time of childhood is too short already. Kind of babbling. Not nearly enough sleep or caffeine.

  4. On a purely theoretical basis, I’d say yes. As has been said before, it’s a school’s responsibility and prerogative to create a safe, appropriate and constructive learning environment for students.

    Also, I agree with Jack that it’s a school’s responsibility to teach life skills (which is why we have Health classes). In my own ideal (and purely theoretical) world, schools exist to teach what families can’t or don’t–we’re all human and need to work together to fill in each other’s gaps.

    So, purely theoretically, it’s within a (same sex) teacher’s right to pull a student aside and talk through what kind of attention their outfit might draw, and what’s a better choice to wear to school, given the rules. This qualifies as a life lesson: it’s key that one learns how to dress one’s self. I don’t know that it’s a good subject for a whole, mixed classroom, except in very general terms. (“Now, on your worksheets, circle which butt you’d find distracting in the hallway…”)

    I also don’t think that it’s fair for students to be punished for accidental dress code infractions. After all, many girls with new curves simply haven’t realized that the pants they wore two years ago don’t look the same on them now (especially if Less Developed BFF does look the same as she used to). But better that they hear that straight from, if not Mom or Friend’s Mom or Cool Aunt, then Mrs. FavoriteEnglishTeacher, than slowly figuring it from peers’ reactions, which won’t be so nice.

    BUT–good luck finding the teachers who handle that discussion effectively and sensitively. I know they exist, but they’re truly exceptional people. If we accepted targeted dress coding as appropriate, I think we’d see many more teachers like the one above*, who with the best of intentions could destroy a student’s body image, as well as those who broach the subject too vaguely and leave the student confused. We’d also open the door to a lot of power tripping and general creepiness.

    TDL;DR: In conclusion, I’d say targeted dress coding is ethical as a concept, but like many other issues, I question anyone’s ability to execute it.

    (By the way, if I were in charge, I’d ban yoga pants in school–fashion aside–for the same reasons I’d ban pajamas and sweats. Leggings may be worn under regulation length skirts or shirts.)

    *Keeping in mind that we’re hearing the student’s side of the story here.

  5. Actually, I never found a three year old little girl in a halter top and low cut pants cute. I always found it inappropriate. But then, I was lucky if I could keep my three year old daughter in clothes at all.

    I often stopped my daughter (and my sons too!) at the door, turned her around and sent her back to her bedroom with a “I don’t think so!”

    For about a year, I worked at a high school and the dress code was pretty clear: no cleavage, no midriffs, skirts and shorts must reach the ends of the fingertips, no wife-beaters for the guys, etc.

    Middle school is tougher. It’s such an awkward, gangly age and kids so desperately want to be like their friends – but here is where you’ll find a 13 year old girl built like a 16 year old while another is built like a 9 year old, and they both want to wear the same thing!

    It’s hard to tell from the above what the infraction actually was. One teacher found the outfit “cute”, another did not. I would hate to think a child was found in violation of code because her outfit wasn’t “cute”, or she wasn’t cute because she wasn’t a size zero. And I suppose two girls of very different proportions could put on the same conservative, tight fitting turtle neck with very different results.

    For lack of a parent who’s willing to re-direct the child before he/she walks out the door, and without being in direct violation of a dress code, I would hope (*sigh*) that a teacher or guidance counselor worth their salt might pull said child aside and help them cultivate talents worth being noticed while minimizing the attention they are not yet equipped to handle.

  6. “Actually, I never found a three year old little girl in a halter top and low cut pants cute. I always found it inappropriate. ”

    Me,too. I remember trying to buy my niece clothing, when she was about 5. The clothes that were in style that year for even children were halters, ‘belly shirts’, and really short skirts. I was surprised…there was virtually no difference between the selections in the children’s department and the teen section.

  7. I say school uniforms. Everyone wears something that’s simple, but modest and has an emblem that reflects their school and encourages a sense of belonging to that school. Too many clothing stores today reflect the Hollywood-style sexualization of children. To many parents are inattentive due to work schedules or just lacking themselves in good taste. With uniforms, you can bypass the former and alleviate the latter.

    It would be great if we were still in an era where parents and pupils could be relied upon for tasteful dressing and grooming. Unfortunately, this is too often not the case. To preserve a good learning environment and impress upon the students a necessary sense of personal responsibility and social virtue, uniforms appear to me to be the best basic option.

    • Oh yes, what Steven said! Great answer! I meant to mention uniforms in my earlier reply but forgot. Granted, I went to Catholic schools through high school, and therefore grew up with the concept of uniforms. Still, they are levelers, not only of appropriateness but also of economic status. And most uniformed schools have found a way to make this affordable for those who need assistance. For everyone else, it would be cheaper actually in the long run. Then schools can only police variations that children/parents slip in — in my high school, girls wore a skirt, blouse, and blazer with knee-high socks. If you were caught with a skirt that was too short, usually it was because you rolled it up at the waist. The nuns inspected every morning. Then the girls would roll them back up.

    • Full disclosure — my children will be attending a new private school in the near future where uniforms are required. That being said, I HATE uniforms. I like the idea of kids being able to express themselves and be comfortable. I also don’t believe it is a true equalizer because kids find other means to put themselves into castes. But more and more schools are turning to uniforms because of awful parenting. Right now, my children wear what they want to school — however everything is pre-approved by me. This takes a whopping 5 minutes of my day every morning and all clothing purchases are pre-approved by me anyway in the first instance. Why is this so hard for some parents?

      • Amen. A lot of the arguments (not all, just a lot) I’ve heard for uniforms are along the lines of “it will cover up differences in income,” and “It will keep the kids from excluding others based on clothes.” Any school that buys into that, is simply being willingly blind. The ingenuity of middle and high schoolers to form cliques, ferret out the poor kids and the nerds, and self-stratify is boundless. Making them all dress alike and pretending it solves the problem is foolishness.

        Or as George Carlin put it- “I love school uniforms. And it’s not a new idea, either. I saw them talking about how great they were in an old newsreel from the ’30s. Or at least I assume they were talking about that, I had trouble understanding because the narration was in German.”

        • “Making them all dress alike and pretending it solves the problem is foolishness.”

          True, the problem is certainly bigger than the clothing. And yes, kids will self-stratify. But comparing it to Nazi Germany is ridiculous. It’s just a uniform, not mind control.

          And, yes, Beth, uniforms rob kids of one opportunity for self expression. But there are so many others.

          As one who wore a uniform to school for 12 years, I found it a relief. I didn’t have to think about what to wear when I was thinking about going to school and taking tests, or making presentations, or just being active in the classroom. One less thing to worry about.

          • Isn’t it though? I agree comparing it to Nazi Germany isn’t particularly fair. But saying that it isn’t mind control…. Maybe not in the classical sense. But uniforms are a psychologically driven, conformist program.

            One of us. One of us.

            • A basic dress code isn’t that hard for kids to get, give them more credit. Some may push it but the same kids will push at the reason for uniforms by wearing diamond bracelets.

              But who pays for required uniforms for quickly growing teens and the many who can’t afford multiple sets or paying for daily laundry? We might have swung a scholarship for tuition when I was that age, but each uniform was more than a week of groceries and we just didn’t have it. I don’t like limiting expression that much, there’s enough tinplate dictators in the educational system.

  8. I agree with the general tenor of the article and of most of the comments written here. It seems like good, commonsensical advice. But somehting is missing.
    Along with enforcing a dress code for the aforementioned reasons wouldn’t it be advisable to impress upon these young women that it is neither necessary nor beneficial to dress sexy to be well liked by family, friends and potential companions or to gain educational achievements and employment. I think it most important to emphasise to young adults that showcasing your cleavage and/or derrière will leave others with the impression that this is your most important and only feature and not only treat you accordingly but likely never discover that you’re also a person and not just a body.
    And secondly, it can never be wrong to impress upon young gentlemen to keep comments and hands to themselves no matter what the woman in question is wearing regardless whether it’s too sexy or disfiguring. Because if a 16 year-old girl has the measurements of Christina Hendricks, then it won’t make a difference if she’s wearing a tent or any other modest clothing – you’ll still notice a large bust. And to be razzed constantly about a feature that you can’t hide away is, let me take a wild guess here, not good for one’s soul.

    I like the school uniform idea as well but I think it would be too expensive. Parents always have to bear a least a percentage of the costs in such cases.

    • We have it in my local school district, Ulrike. The clothes are cheap and easily obtainable at a local chain store. They’re probably a lot cheaper than the back-to-school clothes that the girls will nag you into buying them without uniforms! BTW: Last week, I stopped by a supermarket on my way home from an all-nighter on the job. I was drawn to the sight of a lovely young girl wearing a full skirt and a blouse/jacket combination… and without a ton of chemicals on her face and hair! When she turned, I saw a school crest on her jacket. I just smiled and turned back to my groceries because I didn’t want her to worry that I might be some sort of predator. But it was really charming to see what kids CAN look like and act like with just a little discipline. They NEED that, being kids.

  9. I agree that “targeted dress coding” is like The Wednesday Woman says, as I understand her: ethical in theory, but not practical.

    It does bug me to see young girls (of all ages) dress in ways that seem to be imitating what is widely considered “sexy” for adult females. It also bugs me to see young males dressing in ways that, in my estimation, exhibit lack of self-respect, lack of respect for others, or both. But do I speak up about such dress? Typically no, of course not, because (borrowing in part from wyogranny) either “PERV!” or “raaaaacist.” If I know the kid or his family, I might speak up.

    Uniforms for the youngest grades, say first through third, are OK in my opinion, and should be used in today’s U.S. schools, public and private. But I am not fond of continuing to require the older students to wear uniforms; they must learn how to dress and how not to dress, and must have opportunities to get it right if they can (and get it wrong if they must) while still young.

    It’s probably a thoroughly discredited and abandoned theory, as far as dressing-for-school goes. But nevertheless, I trust that, in part by requiring uniforms, most of the younger students can be conditioned without being harmed. I trust that there are beneficial effects of such conditioning, if applied while the students are younger. I trust that the earlier strictness of conformity and uniformity aids in educating students less expensively and otherwise more effectively in later years about the need for each person to understand and practice circumspection, general and situational awareness, self-respect, self-restraint, and “modesty first.”

    I do not like the idea of dress “codes.” Maybe I’m just turned off by the word itself, and am not getting how the term is used as a synonym for “rules.”

    I like the idea of setting boundaries – rules – and continual efforts to make the boundaries clear, as consistently as possible (including when deviations or “violations” might be acceptable, and when they “probably” are not, and why). I recall “Bermuda Days” in my junior high years.

    But a “code” is disagreeable to me. A “code” provokes expectations of confusion and dread of vagueness, arbitrariness, and great difficulty in understanding what are the boundaries, and why. I think of a “code” as some mysterious hammer hanging over a student’s head; one can never be sure when that hammer might descend and strike with great pain. So, one decides to assume a violation of the code is so awful, one cannot decide for oneself; meanwhile, another decides it’s inevitable that the hammer will strike, so she may as well put the “code” to a test and do as she pleases – and then, complain about the unfairness of ever having to feel any pain.

    There is some ethics incompleteness in rules on how to dress for school. But kids need rules, more than they don’t need them. Same goes for us adults, though we might wish otherwise.

  10. Ah I see…

    So if you dress like a nun little billy won’t be distracted.

    There will be no female form seen as long as there are no leggings.

    Nothing to make little billy stumble. Bc naturally little billy has no self control and it’s all the little girl who happens to be shaped like a female…. It’s her fault.

  11. And actually? Some people can wear clothes that others can’t…

    It’s a fact that sucks..

    But a 110 pound female in leggings looks more appropriate than a 210 female in jeans at times… It all depends on how you wear it.

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