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)