Thursday, November 3, 2011

IMHO: Young feminists must comply with school dress codes

But -- fair enforcement free of discrimination is a must.
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Let's talk about pants.  Let's talk about yoga pants.  They're a hot topic among high school students.  At issue is whether students should be allowed to wear them to school and whether they violate school dress codes.

Here's a clip from Battlefield High School in Va.:

A similar situation recently took place in Loveland, Ohio.

Note that neither school's dress codes or rule book cite "yoga pants" as a specific violation, more generally naming tight or suggestive clothing.  But what is apparent, at least from these two videos, is that school administrators could be unfairly targeting female students for dress code violations and, in the process, disrupting their personal learning experiences.

In her blog, fitness expert Lisa Johnson writes,  "I drive by the high school regularly and have seen plenty of girls in outfits that make me cringe.  But never once did I do a double-take over yoga pants. Super-tight, low-cut jeans and tank tops that barely cover are always present, but what actually drives me the most crazy are pajama bottoms worn in public; that’s not sexy at all, just sloppy.

"I think having a general rule of conduct for both sexes that bans clothes that are too short or too tight is appropriate, but why are the girls being singled out here?  Is it a concern over the sexualization of female teenagers?  Lots of boys of high school age wear nothing but skinny jeans which can be nearly as form-fitting as yoga pants, but there’s no uproar or concern over that fashion choice."

Johnson goes on to explain that yoga pants are popular, "Because they’re ridiculously comfortable, very functional, and flattering! I can smoothly go from a Pilates session to the grocery store to school pick-up to coffee with a friend. I’m sure high school girls appreciate the same flexibility as they go from classes to gym to after-school activities to study dates with friends."

Locally, my young feminist friends, who are facing similar issues at their high school, tell me the same thing.  They want to be comfortable and they don't want to be unfairly hassled over their fashion choices.
But, negotiating school rules and dress codes is sticky.  It is true that public schools function "in loco parentis," meaning "in place of the parents" and can set certain standards and rules for students. 

The civil law firm of Modrall-Sperling, located in Albuquerque, N.M., has a some very comprehensive, generally applicable information on its website.  Modrall-Sperling confirms both the legality and constitutionality of dress codes:

"Dress and grooming codes are generally legally permissible. The wearing of a particular type or style of clothing usually is not seen as expressive conduct protected under the Constitution. Various school dress codes have been upheld including a prohibition against sagging pants, earrings, and clothing containing advertisements or objectionable statements."

The firm further explains:

"Public schools are delegated with the responsibility of educating students and maintaining an effective and orderly environment conducive to learning.

"An educational institution may prescribe reasonable dress codes. Recent court decisions have noted that an educational institution must demonstrate that the dress code is reasonable and rationally related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose.

"Many public school administrators maintain that dress codes reflect community values and create a positive educational environment. According to educators, dress codes promote student self-respect, maintain classroom discipline, discourage peer pressure to buy extravagant clothing, and make classrooms safe. Moreover, some educators have reported that dress codes have reduced the number of fights in schools and improved scholastic achievements and student attendance."

Still, fair enforcement remains an issue.

I found an opinion piece titled "High school dress codes shirt around fairness issue" written in 2009 Lilly Joynes, who was a sophomore at Mechanicsburg Area High School in Pennsylvania when her editorial was published by  She hit the proverbial nail on the head when she wrote:

"Unfortunately, there isn't a mutual agreement when it comes to dress code enforcement and what is or isn't appropriate for a learning environment.  Every school's dress code is different and, therefore, different rules are enforced.

"Clear rules need to be stated in every school's student handbook so a particular person or gender is not being wrongfully punished for their clothing choices. These rules need to be enforced fairly for both sexes."

And, her parting shot is still applicable:

"All students ask is that principals and teachers treat them fairly. So as a school authority, consider how many dress code violations your school has handed out this year. Were a majority of those to females? If so, it might be time to think more carefully when dishing out discipline to inappropriately dressed students, males included." 

It also jibes with Modrall-Sperling's recommendation to, "Apply dress codes impartially, consistently, fairly, and in equal manner."

I would also admonish parents to become part of the process.  Parents should talk sons and daughters about modes of dress that are appropriate and comfortable in the learning environment and watch to see that what they are wearing does not contribute to sexualization or objectification in or out of school.

Related links:
Yoga Pant Selections from Athleta
Yoga Pant Selections from Title 9
"Are High School Dress Codes Sexist?" -- a different view from Yahoo! Associated Content

What do you think?  Take my poll.  Leave comments below:

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