Before my 14 year old daughter left for school this morning she came out of her room and asked, “Do you think I’ll get dress coded for this?”
My response to her was far different than I had once imagined it would be. I remember the old me saying things like, “If I have a daughter, she’ll never go out of the house wearing ____” (insert whatever I thought was immodest at the time).
But that’s not how I see things today as the actual– no longer theoretical– parent of a teenage girl.
Now, she has never been “dress coded” at school, because the clothing she chooses for herself is pretty ordinary. However, in these frequent discussions when she worries about it (or tells me about other kids– always girls– who got dress coded), I use it as an opportunity to have an important discussion with her. Here’s where I steer things:
I tell her that if she’s wearing clothes her mom and I bought for her, there’s no reason she can’t wear them to school or anywhere else.
She’s 14 and obviously doesn’t have a job– which means if she has clothes, we bought them. And if we bought them, there’s no reason why she can’t wear them to school– even if some administrator disagrees with our family’s decisions. We are completely capable as a family to make our own decisions on clothing, we don’t need the school to help. If we wanted help from the school, we would have sent her to one of those private schools where they do stuff like that.
Thus, I encourage her to keep on whatever she’s wearing (if she wants), even if she’s worried about an administrator giving her a hard time.
I teach her that other people don’t get to dictate anything about her body– that she is in complete control over her self expression and has her own bodily autonomy as a human being.
The *worst* thing I could teach my daughter is that men, or societal forces, somehow have a power or say regarding her self-expression or body. This would be a message that could throw her into a host of oppressive and abusive situations as an adult, so I make sure we have that conversation right now. She is the complete and total owner of her own body. She can dress it however she wants, and draw boundaries that she is in total control of (aka, if someone at church wants to hug you, you can totally say “no thanks”).
If I were to encourage her to passively accept the dress code, I’d be encouraging her to accept the reality that others have control over her body.
I tell her that she isn’t responsible making sure the boys don’t “get distracted.”
I teach my daughter that when she goes to school, it’s her job to work her hardest learning English, learning to read, and giving her best effort to everything she does. That’s what she’s responsible for.
What she’s not responsible for is making sure all the boys are actually doing their jobs. She’s not responsible for their attention span, she’s not responsible for where they point their eyes, and she’s certainly not responsible for whatever thoughts 14 year old boys think about during the school day.
I teach her that her body is a beautiful creation of God, and that she should love it. But I also teach her that her body is not some hyper sexualized kryptonite where having her bra strap accidentally stick out, or where a bare shoulder is going to render all the males in her world completely helpless and incapable of behaving appropriately.
Seriously– if your son can’t finish his math assignment because my daughter has her shoulder showing, the “talk” that needs to occur is with your son, not my daughter.
My daughter has been raised in an egalitarian home with strong female role models, so when she experiences sexism, she naturally finds it revolting and unnatural all on her own. I use these dress code conversations to point out how sexism and patriarchy are both ingrained in our culture, and teach her how to notice and identify it when it comes up. Regarding the dress code, she was able to notice all on her own that it’s really only the girls who have their bodies policed, and that this felt wrong to her.
Once she’s able to identify things like this, I teach her the importance of tearing down any social structure that oppresses people. This gives way to a bigger discussion on other forms of cultural oppression– discussions I really cherish having with her.
I tell her that I would be her #1 supporter in defying patriarchy.
She is being raised in a pacifist home, but that doesn’t mean we teach passivity or compliance with oppression. While we teach the principles of being respectful towards those in authority and being loving towards even our enemies, I make sure to not confuse this with teaching her blind compliance with authority.
Instead, I encourage her to take control over her clothing choices and self expression– and I make sure she knows that if she ever gets dress coded, I’d put up the biggest, most spectacular fight her school has ever seen. (And this always invites a “look” that is split between feeling supported while also saying, “Dad, do NOT embarrass me.”)
Private schools can do whatever they like, because we have the total freedom to not go there. But public schools? I don’t need my local public school telling me how to parent, or telling my daughter that her body is some hyper sexualized object that will throw the school into total chaos if she happens to have too much of her 7th grade shoulder or leg showing.
And so, when she’s worried about getting in trouble at school, I use that as an opportunity to have a much bigger discussion.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.