Dress Codes and Preteen Girls: A Reader Asks

Dress Codes and Preteen Girls: A Reader Asks October 10, 2015

I recently received this email from a reader:

Hi Libby Anne,

First of all I have to say I absolutely love your blog for several reasons. First of all, your experience closely parallels my own. Secondly, you are an excellent writer and I find your opinions filled with wisdom. And finally, even though you are quick to point out shortcomings in the Christian community you do so with respect and fairness. I am a Christian, but also have liberal, feminist political views and I feel perfectly comfortable reading your blog.

Now to my question. I would love to see you write a blog post on the issue of dress codes for girls and teens. I know your daughter is young enough that she may not have encountered this problem yet, but I would love to see your opinion.

As a parent I am struggling with how to handle the dress code from a feminist point of view. A quick google search reveals lots of news articles about girls who have faced unfair treatment from their public schools.

My oldest daughter is 11 and looks 16, and through absolutely no fault of her own receives a lot of male attention even from boys that are much, much too old for her. She started middle school in public school this year. We live in a very conservative part of the Bible belt and even though she is in public school, and 4H (secular and publicly funded) they still trot out the same dress code for girls to keep from tempting the boys routine.

The 4H club even went so far as to dress boys in crop tops and shorty shorts and do a skit about dress codes for girls. Gagg!!

I don’t necessarily disagree with the standards (no shorts shorter than fingertip length, no tank top straps narrower than two fingers) but I really disagree with the reasoning behind it as well as the fact there is no dress code for boys. I also think it sexualizes young girls who are only thinking about being comfortable on a hot day.

My opinion is the reasoning that women should wear modest clothing so as not to tempt men could take a person all the way to wearing a burqa. And I’m pretty sure that the Muslim men who require women to wear burqas have a good enough imagination to undress a women wearing a burqa in their mind if they wanted to. (My daughter shared this opinion with her Sunday school teacher when the topic came up. She said if looks could kill she would have been evaporated into a pile of ashes!)

However I still want my daughter to dress reasonably within my own standards for modesty. But from a feminist viewpoint I am really finding no way to justify this, especially considering my belief that her body belongs to her and I am just here to guide her in making her own choices.

So this is what I told my daughter. Dress is very strongly driven by human culture. Even though it isn’t right, people will judge you by what you wear. This is wrong because your worth as a person is not in your clothes or your appearance, but in your character and who you are.

As an adult, I have to follow a dress code. My company requires that I wear slacks every day except Friday, when jeans are allowed, and that I do not wear open toed shoes or sneakers. But I dress by different standards when I go to church, the beach or the grocery store.

Right or wrong, know that your dress is a brand identity you are projecting and you have to choose what brand you want to project. As an adult, I try to project a professional serious brand at work. At the gym I try to project a sporty brand (well actually I would rather just be as unnoticeable as possible) and on the weekends I try to look casual and fun.

I encouraged her to see her school dress codes in the same way as a work dress code. And to wear other clothes, such as short-shorts and spaghetti strap tanks, for other occasions.

She also faces the fact that many of the girls at school wear expensive brand name clothes, while we shop on a Walmart/Target budget. We have found some really cute trendy clothing at local thrift stores that would otherwise be beyond our budget but the issue has lead to some really good talks about clothing and value as a person. Does wearing $120 jeans make you better than people who wear $20 jeans? Would you rather have fancy jeans or a trip to the aquarium or horse riding lessons? Which will make a bigger difference in your life in 5 years or 20? If you have to find your worth in the cost of your jeans, what does that say about your self-confidence?

I told her to dress in a way that makes her feel attractive and confident, but emphasized that her worth is not in her clothes. I told her that clothes are just an accessory.

“You want people to notice you when they look at you, so you don’t have to have the most expensive, flashiest, trendiest most attention getting clothes. In the same way that you don’t want such a fancy elaborate photo frame that people don’t notice the picture inside, wear clothes that enhance you, but don’t let the clothes steal the show,” I told her.

Everything I said is extremely complicated and I still feel like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. It all boils down to doublespeak “Dress modestly but don’t listen to the reasons they are telling you.” And “Your clothes don’t define you as a person but people will still judge you by them so dress carefully.”

I’m sorry my email got so long. Thank you for taking the time to read to the end. I would love to know your opinion and to see you tackle this in a blog post.

Thanks,

Janelle

P.S.—I had one more thought. My dress code for work is not at all the same as her dress code for school because my dress code is not based on gender or modesty. It is the same for both men and women, and impacts both genders equally.

My response was as follows:

Wow, lots of interesting thoughts here! First off, this:

So this is what I told my daughter. Dress is very strongly driven by human culture. Even though it isn’t right, people will judge you by what you wear. This is wrong because your worth as a person is not in your clothes or your appearance, but in your character and who you are.

As an adult, I have to follow a dress code. My company requires that I wear slacks every day except Friday, when jeans are allowed, and that I do not wear open toed shoes or sneakers. But I dress by different standards when I go to church, the beach or the grocery store.

Right or wrong, know that your dress is a brand identity you are projecting and you have to choose what brand you want to project. As an adult, I try to project a professional serious brand at work. At the gym I try to project a sporty brand (well actually I would rather just be as unnoticeable as possible) and on the weekends I try to look casual and fun.

I encouraged her to see her school dress codes in the same way as a work dress code. And to wear other clothes, such as short-shorts and spaghetti strap tanks, for other occasions.

This is exactly what I plan to say to my daughter, and in fact I think I’ve already given her some pre-versions of this talk, though obviously it’s a bit different at six than it is in middle school. I think you’re absolutely on track in talking about (a) the reality that, whether we like it or not, people make judgements about other people based on their clothing and (b) the reality that different codes of dress are appropriate for different situations. I don’t think I would phrase it as “modesty.” I think I’d phrase it as making informed decisions about your clothing. And I’d also push back against the judgement bit, pointing out that she should try not to judge others on the basis of their clothes and that she shouldn’t let others dictate her clothing choices entirely — and that worth doesn’t come from clothes — but it seems like you’re hitting on a lot of that with the designer v. brand name clothing issue.

Now I absolutely agree that it is wrong for organizations like schools or clubs to have dress codes for girls and not for boys, and I am well aware that the underlying rationale is often very close to purity culture bullshit. It might at least be worth pointing this out to both her school and her 4H club. Remind them that girls have hormones too (and want sex as much as boys do) and encourage them to think of the dress code in terms of being professional rather than in terms of, well, slut shaming. I have twice made comments like these and received a really positive response both times (once when I asked the local Y to consider barring sexist, racist, etc., shirts, which they had not thought of before, and once when I asked the city counsel to please talk to whoever buys road signs and ask them to replace their “men working ahead” signs with “workers ahead” signs), so you might be surprised.

May I post your email, with some commentary, on the blog? You may find some of the feedback from other commenters helpful, etc.

Thanks!

Libby

So what do the rest of you think? What advice would you have for Janelle?

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