A few days ago I was reading a blog by a teacher about the day after Halloween. I did not save the link, and I should have. One of the students wore a cape to school that day. The teacher kept considering telling the child to take it off, but she noticed that a child who is normally awkward and clumsy was far more confident. The article seemed to be written in order to pride herself on doing a great thing for this kid, as it seemed to help him in the future as well. No students even mentioned the cape, although teachers did do a double take. I think that all of this is great. But in the end, the teacher, while she did compliment the cape, told him not to wear it again. I cannot figure out why.
I wore costumes to school every day. I got a lot of flak for it from my peers, but it allowed me to be who I am. In high school, people who did not know me by name knew me as Little Red Riding Hood because I always wore a red cape that I had made. Today there is a lot of discussion about school dress codes. They are being attacked for being sexist, and even for creating the very over-sexualized environment they were created to fight. I agree with all of those points. The rules are often stated in ways that target girls more than boys. They are nearly always more strictly enforced with girls than with boys. By making such a big deal of it, we are teaching young kids to look at one another’s clothing and bodies and question “Is that enough clothing”, “Shouldn’t they cover up more?”, and “Why, what is wrong with this outfit that I have to change?” We are saying that what they wear is more important that who they are, and more important than why they are at school.
Some of the rules are unfair to certain body types. In my district short and skirt lengths were determined by arm length. A silly rule since some girls were completely within regulations and still showed ass when they sat down, while I broke that without ever being questioned since my skirt was plenty long because my arms are long.
This is not the message we should be sending kids. We need to be encouraging them to look beyond the clothes, and beyond the body to what a person is really made of. When we focus on the clothes, the person gets lost. This encourages people in our society to dehumanize one another. This allows people to do things to people without feeling regret. Whether that action is teasing in school, or physically assaulting someone. We live in a society where we do not have the luxury to personally meet everyone that we interact with. This means that we cannot afford to make any of the interactions we practice with those we do know contribute to that dehumanizing effect.
The point of many dress codes is to avoid ‘distractions’. This is ridiculous. The fact that a girl’s skirt is a little short, or that a boy’s pants are too baggy (showing my age a bit) should not be allowed to be a distraction in the first place. A teacher notices that someone is leering, call them out. If they persist, they should be sent to the office. Not the person they were looking at. We should not be teaching children that others, girls especially, should cover up so that people looking at them can feel more comfortable. We need to be teaching children that people have different tastes and make different decisions. We need to be teaching children that they are responsible for their own actions.
I went to a middle school with a more extreme dress code, called a Uniform Code of Dress. It was not quite a uniform, but very close. We had 2 colors of pants or skirts we were permitted to wear, in one style, and 5 colors of polo shirts. This was initially instituted to prevent students from wearing gang colors. My friends and I were so out of touch with that world that we could not even tell you the names of the gangs active in our area, let alone what their colors or signs were. I would probably have worn gang colors a lot without realizing it, as many people do.
This system ended up in a lot more time tied up in determining if students were within regulations or not. Not only were we measuring if the girl’s skirts were actually longer than their finger tips to also trying to determine if someone’s pants were the right color. My first dying project was adding coffee to the washing machine while washing a slightly lighter skirt that had been called white too many times to make it more khaki. After I left the school, it was decided to keep the style restrictions, but lift the color rules. So the entire reason for the Uniform Code of Dress was thrown out the window.
During this period I was very frustrated with the rules because I could not express myself. I took to wearing what I call “happy socks”, or the ones with bright colors, pictures, or separate toes. I took a lot of time braiding my hair on the car ride in so that it was as weird as possible. In trying to find ways to express myself I tested the limits that no-one had thought to make. But I also lost something. The goal was not about me being me, but rather about being strange or drawing attention to myself. I still wear the happy socks, but the hair took too much work, and did not really mean anything to me. Later I turned to doing elaborate masks in makeup, which worked when I had an hour and a half bus ride each morning, not so much once I started driving. I kind of miss the masks.
There is another issue that is gaining attention these days. Gender identity. I think that this ties in perfectly with this topic. In high school I had a gay friend choose to wear a skirt one day. I honestly did not even notice it until he mentioned at lunch how much shit he was getting. He had chosen to do it in part to find out what the reaction was. He committed to going a full week. Of course when he stopped, the people around him may have felt like they won, but there is no point in continuing something on the principle of proving someone wrong.
I do believe that clothing is a key way to express who you are. I look back on that as inspiration to be myself no matter what since I cannot wear costumes to work every day. These days wearing a full costume is rare because I am lazy and getting all dressed up to go shopping doesn’t really feel worth it. Childhood is a special time, you do not have to worry about what bosses or clients think. If we allow children to express themselves when they are young, they will be more accepting when they are older, and they will have a better concept of who they are. I do not think that expression should be restricted unnecessarily, to me it is a part of Freedom of Speech. It is a human right.