Michael Kasdan reports on his town’s recent progress on dress code in schools and why that matters for boys
Here at The Good Men Project we are involved in conversations across the myriad aspects of our culture that relate to boys and men.
One such area – and some may find this a bit surprising – is the battle over school dress codes. While I am not a big fan of labeling every cultural discussion a “war,” the so-called “Dress Code Wars” have been simmering across the country and across the globe. This conversation and debate seems to pop up every year in the Spring when the weather gets warm, but this time around the conversation has remained in the public eye well into the Fall.
So where do boys come in? It’s the messaging. By telling boys that girls have to change because boys are distracted by them, we are perpetuating the nefarious “boys will be boys” ethos that is so dangerous to both boys and girls.
As I’ve learned, the dress code is a complex and nuanced issue.
Opinions run the gamut from uniforms to no dress codes to all spaces in between.
For young ladies, the enforcement of our school’s dress code raises potential issues of sexism, discrimination, education, and body- and self-image.
In our town, these issues were framed far more eloquently than I could hope to by a student-led local movement in the Maplewood/South Orange called #IAmMoreThanADistraction. (It is well worth your time to watch the short BBC video that is linked in the previous sentence.)
One creative sign captures the girls’ perspective quite nicely: “I have legs. Why is that such a surprise. They aren’t there to serve as a distraction. No, simply for walking.”
But this conversation is not only about the bad messages we are delivering girls. It’s also about what we – and our school administrators and teachers – are telling our boys.
When we communicate, as one example, that girls have to make sure to wear shorts that comply with ‘the fingertip rule’ lest they distract boys in the learning environment, we are sending a powerful message. Whether the word “boys” is stated or left unstated in that statement, what we are saying to boys is that girls are a distraction to you, that you cannot and are not be expected to control yourself and your hormones. That is precisely the opposite of what we want to be telling our rising young men. To put it more bluntly, as my friend, Kyle Alagood has, what we should be doing is “attempting to educate horny young men about sex, hormones, rape-culture, and gender equality . . . by teach[ing] young men that women are people, not objects.”
In my view, rather than sending these communications down from on high to impressionable middle schoolers and high schoolers, it would be far better to create a communication and learning environment that teaches boys how to move in this world, accountably, as people.
In our town, I am one of a group of parents that are working towards addressing this situation. Our team includes Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Lisa Duggan, Shana Lindsay, and Niv Miyasato. This past June, Jennifer penned an article framing these issues, which was run in Slate. After we began to work with our local school district towards a dress code that addresses these concerns, she wrote a follow-up piece that was published last week in Al Jazeera America that shared our concerns and our approach:
“Schools must develop policies that do not shame girls or underestimate boys by assuming that they cannot be expected to behave appropriately around girls who show any skin. The shaming of the female form — and the blaming of girls for being girls, while excusing boys for being boys — are the real disruption to and, yes, distraction from the educational environment. And it must stop. The parents, students and administration of South Orange–Maplewood School District stand ready to lead the way.”
In our conversation with the district last week, we outlined four main areas that we are focusing on in our town as a starting point: the guidelines themselves, enforcement of guidelines and how to handle violations, messaging and communications, and education. Importantly, messaging and communications should be considered not just from the perspective of girls, but also boys.
Earlier this week, I – along with Lisa Duggan – had the opportunity to discuss this topic on the Al Jazeera Morning Show on “Dress Code Controversy,” and said:
“The same messages that are saying ‘girls you are a distraction,’ when boys hear that, I think they are hearing ‘You’re boys. You’re going to be distracted [by] girls, and that is a problem . . . .This is a time for kids to be learning who they are and how we’re are going to move in this world. And we are going to be working next to and being next to women, and woman have legs and shoulders, and I think its important that this is a time when the messaging they are getting . . . . isn’t ‘hey you’re going to be distracted [by] girls and that’s the way its going to be in this world.'”
At breakfast the next morning I had the chance to discuss this with my twelve-year-old son, Jacob.
As he repeated my line “Girls have legs. Girls have shoulders,” I began to pat myself on the back in my head for my witty repartee, which was surely being readily translated into a lesson for young Jacob to internalize. Then he went on: “Sure. We have legs, and we have shoulders. But the girls’ are prettier.”
Thank you Jacob Kasdan, for keeping it real.
But that’s exactly it. This is the world, and we need kids who are ready to live in it. #IAmMoreThanADistraction shows that these kids are a lot more sophisticated and ready to engage in a dialog on this issue than we usually give them credit for.
As our school is looking to revise the policy and implementation of our dress code In Maplewood/South Orange, they are listening both to what our kids have to say and to what our group of parents have to say. We’re excited to move forward.
It’s not easy. But it is important. For all of us.
Photo Credit: Lead: Flickr/Joris Louwes
Girls (Niv Miyasato)
Most boys do see girls as people it’s just they also see things they find attractive in said girls. This is narture people you will all ways have someone liking someone and no matter how you say “boys shouldn’t be doing that it will still happen because people like people. Not to mention girls aren’t the only ones who have to deal with these rules there are dress codes for boys too. In the end it’s up to the schools wether or not these rules exist and if you don’t like it find a new school for your child.
Stop blaming the boys for this. If boys wore spaghetti strap tops and shorts with their butt cheeks hanging out, or skin-tight yoga pants outlining their “private parts”, we’d be talking about them distracting the girls. This is not about sexism. Girls only dress scantily because that is what is in fashion right now, not because it’s the only way they can be comfortable. Sometimes we don’t get to do what we want. We have to teach kids that there is a time and place for everything. Grown-ups don’t get to wear skimpy stuff to work either. Save it for… Read more »
this is very dumb. exactly drama i am a father of two young beautiful daughters and they sometimes choose to wear short shorts does it matter to me? no because thats what they want! if the boys cant keep there eyes off thats there probs. but my daughters are not to blame!
I am a 13 year old girl in middle school and iv’e been doing some research regarding school dress code and how to teach boys respect and discipline, and I agree with just about everything in this article. Girls shouldn’t have to hide themselves and boys need to be taught how to give a girl respect and learn some discipline. Boys might not know this but it can get super embarrassing for girls when a boy is disrespecting her. Another point of mine is that it’s not like girls go out there and whistle so why can’t we teach boys… Read more »
Hi I am hoping that you can share the final revised code in your area? We are working on something in our area, too, and it would be helpful to have examples. Thx! Great piece.
This is like the yoga pants blow up…a lot of hoodoo about nothing…
I wear yoga pants because I go to the gym and work out…and do yoga….and I do it with a bunch of middle aged women (and some men)….it is ridiculous to say that we are doing this to be distracting….we are just going to workout…and then do suburban things afterwards like go to the bank and go grocery shopping…get a grip!
Still, there should be some kind of law against people wearing yoga pants if they aren’t in shape. You wouldn’t want a naked fat man wearing a speedo everywhere you went right? Same with chubbers in yoga pants, men or women.
No, Rog, what we really need is some kind of law that prevents you from leaving public comments on online articles.
Middle school boys are *not* going to rape girls who wear short shorts or very short mini-skirts or blouses with lots of cleavage. That is just silly. Most boys are raised with an understanding of morality and they have control of their actions. However, some middle school boys who are experiencing high levels of testosterone for the first time in their lives don’t have control of their hormones. Keep in mind that the brain of a nine-year old boy is doused with roughly one cup of testosterone on a daily basis. The brain of a 15-year old boy is doused… Read more »
Jen – Interesting, and – yes – I’ve heard that too here and there….
My mom was a high school teacher at the school I attended, and I recall her saying that the male staff were the ones arguing the loudest to ban certain types of clothing, like shorts and tank tops, because THEY were distracted. Some admitted as much. It was just convenient to blame the boys in class.
Well that’s gross and disappointing.
Btw since i can’t edit that post, if girls legs are in fact prettier then why? Is it because they are shaved? If so maybe all need to shave our legs so tjey look great. If it’s because they might have a bit of color on their toes maybe we should find it great that anyone can use colors on their toes. Skirts? What is about skirts as clothing that all of a sudden make young men unable to focus? Personally barring showing off stuff, i would guess it would be alot more comfortable to wear a skirt for both… Read more »
Then maybe we start with media that sexualizes everything it touches. As we all know, sex sells. The teen girls get this beytrr than anyone and advertising uses it. Show some leg
Yes in general they’re prettier. But why are they? Nobody asks that question.
Dress codes are part of LIFE. Do the girls that want to wear ‘short shorts’ to school think they will be able to dress that way when they become a doctor or a lawyer? The complete and total lack of any foresight into this issue boggles my mind. What disturbs me the most about this story is that people are ignorant of the threat our boys and young men are facing in schools. News flash: Boys are flunking out in record numbers. Female privilege for girls in education sees boys systematically discriminated against by female teachers for fair grades. (References… Read more »
Good points Jamie
Happy to announce that our school board just passed the new dress code policy at this evenings meeting! Continuing to move in the right direction on this issue here in Maplewood/South Orange!!
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf @jweisswolf
SOMSD revised dress code passed at tonight’s board mtg! @ajam @Slate @michaelkasdan @motherhoodmag @designingdaddy @amelscript @contrarianp
I was distracted in school by girls, but it was a pleasant distraction and I don’t think I could attribute it to the way they dressed as opposed to the way they looked. There were a couple female teachers especially gym teachers who were distracting, but I could still get my work done. Let’s separate the issue of dress codes from the iffy reasoning behind it. In the business world, you’ll be expected to dress within reason. I’ve seen some stupid dress codes for example men aren’t allowed to wear sweaters or ear rings at my job, but women are.… Read more »
At my school girls wore shorts (same length as boys) or skirts which were pretty tight, showed visible underwear line (skirts were light green, shorts were only black which hid detail), the shirt also usually showed darker colour bras (white shirts). Yeah it was distracting, especially in the classes where tables were arranged in circles and contrasting underwear REALLY showed up as we all were sitting across from each other. Some of the girls realized this and teens will be teens… There were oodles of opportunities for an eyeful every day at school, yeah it was distracting but not to… Read more »
I highly doubt boys would be allowed to wear them either especially as you’d see high levels of detail of the penis, scrotum, etc.
indeed archie, lol imagine if the boys for nonsporting activities, took to wearing what their ancestors wore 400yrs ago. there’d be much spluttering and prune face pulling.
Many of our fears rely on the notion that boys can barely control their sexual urges, a topic I’ve written about several times. Such as (my favorite image):
As a boy — a totally normal boy and not overly hormonal or sex-driven than any other of my peers — no one had to “teach” me to be distracted by girls, especially if they were wearing clothes that showed off body parts (cleavage, tight pants, etc). This idea is naive, at best. Does that mean boys/men are not responsible for their actions? Of course not. But there’s a middle ground — an in-between, just like there’s a compromise between making girls wear long dresses and burkas and letting them wear anything. It’s also silly to state/think/feel that dress codes… Read more »
Jason, I’m with you. Of course scantily clad or sexually provocative clothing is often a distraction. There is a middle ground and the adults are not discussing it. They are politicizing the discussion. One can certainly be distracted from a lecture on chemistry by a girl so dressed in such clothing without feeling you are “losing control.” The slogan, “I am more than a distraction.” implies that I am a distraction—-but not only a distraction. We all try to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Good for you for acknowledging and finding middle ground and for so clearly describing… Read more »
William, let me start by saying that I do believe we need to have more discussions with young girls about dressing in certain ways. But teaching boys that how girls dress is not a green light for them to act out should be a separate discussion from teaching girls the appropriate way to dress. By saying that there is a middle ground between these two topics, still re-enforces the opinion that boys are not capable of controlling themselves and girls are still to blame for it. So yes, lets talk to girls about their bodies, about how they feel the… Read more »
FlyingKal – to clarify, the point about my son’s comment saying that girls’ legs or shoulders are – in his view – “prettier” than his legs or shoulder is that he’s a middle school kid, and he thinks girls are pretty. And that’s fine. And that’s good. But the solution is not to say “they are distracting to you and should cover up.”
Also, telling kids that girls are a distraction for boys, also tell them that boys are not to be trusted.
Which in many cases is probably a more damaging message to be giving a lot of young boys already struggling with their self esteem, than to the girls.
OTOH, I’m not so sure it’s entirely healthy for boys to internalize the message that girls are “prettier”, or inherently better human beings in any other areas.
I agree. The male body is more shamed by society in some ways. It is seen as something ugly and disgusting that needs to be covered up whereas women and girls are seen as the fairer sex. It does contribute to some people’s homophobia toward gay men as they ponder, how can any man be attracted to other men when there are women who look so much better? Women are not all pretty and men are not all ugly.
Tom (and Mark) — I actually believe this *IS* a tremendous opportunity to teach…social issues. Part – I would say a big part actually – of education is teaching our kids to deal with social and cultural issues just like this.
Schools are always teaching some view of sexuality. The question is will it be and intentional process or will it be shaming and confusion?
Why does shaming or sexuality have to have anything to do with this? Can’t it simply be an expectation of the students by the school? As I said, the claim that it’s “distracting” is lame bu there are aspects of having a dress code that can be productive.
And if all parents could afford to send their kids to private school where there are clear dress codes, they will do so. Why? Because many parents want schools to “teach” and not deal with social issues like what they can and can’t wear.
In my many years of life, I’ve yet met one person who struggles because they were forced into a dress code.
Using “distraction” to boys as a reason is pretty lame but distraction in the sense that kids identify themselves by what they wear does make sense.
I can afford to send my kids to private school, and I don’t.
The dress code issue is about shaming girls about their bodies and teaching boys that they aren’t good at controlling themselves around girls.
I think there are a LOT of people affected by this, compounded by other messages from other sources. You probably just don’t have these types of conversations with people who are dealing with that. Also, it’s generational. I don’t think anyone your generation thought much about shaming girls for their bodies or telling boys they were sexual beasts.
We have a dress code on our unit and it’s very limited. Blue pants, no logo’s, no designs, white t-shirts, no logo’s no designs, Blue sweat shirts/hoodies, no logo’s no designs. The reasons are as follow: 1,) eliminates the have and have nots 2.) Allows the clients to focus on themselves 3.) they learn the clothes they wear do not make them who they are As I said, the reason that it’s distracting to boys is lame. I’m sure there is a compromise here somewhere. You and I know that there are kids wearing inappropriate clothing. It’s not a matter… Read more »
In so far as the private schools, how come it’s not an issue with those parents/students?
Great article, Mike. Makes you wonder. How about we teach kids to navigate relationship and sexuality issues instead of institutionally suggesting they can’t handle it? Overall that’s a pretty damning message to leave them with, boys or girls.