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The Mamafesto: The problem with policing what girls wear to prom

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

From classrooms to the prom, dress codes usually unfairly target girls

It's prom season. A time where many girls are spending a lot of time figuring out what special dress they'll wear for a fun night of dancing and hanging out with their friends. But, in line with increasingly strict daily dress codes, many schools around the country are coming down hard on students and telling them what dresses will not be allowed at prom this year.

Like many school dress codes already in place, the ones focusing on prom inevitably fall way more on the shoulders of female students. There are very few dress codes in place that impact boys, either in school or in more formal settings like school dances. Most of the rules have to do with what girls wear because of the potential for "distraction" and being "unladylike." These dress codes don't really have anything to do with safety or other such issues. No. Instead, they're usually in place to police girls' bodies and to prevent the possibility of boys getting too riled up over them.

Instead of teaching boys and others how to be respectful of people, regardless of how they dress, schools are finding it easier to target girls, instituting policies like no yoga pants or leggings, or no tank tops, even during warmer months. These policies are now bleeding into prom season, with some schools deciding to enforce — or even change! — the rules at the last minute, causing dress panic and lost funds for many.

Mireya Briceno was kicked out of her senior prom for supposedly not adhering to the strict prom dress code of Muskegon High School. However, she went shopping with her mother and the dress code to make sure her dress met all of the school's criteria. Yet despite the fact that the dress code explicitly stated that "Backless dresses ARE acceptable," (and that other girls had similar looking dresses), Mireya was still kicked out of the prom. So far, Muskegon High School has refused to comment and Mireya's mother Connie has not been able to get an answer from the school as to why Mireya's prom night was ruined. It should be noted that the dress code section of the letter was directed exclusively to the "ladies" with nary one note for the boys.

A high school in Shelton, Connecticut, is seeing similar issues regarding their prom. A week before the prom, Shelton High School's headmaster Beth A. Smith made an announcement letting students know what wasn't acceptable attire for the prom. Like Muskegon High, it was all directed at female students. Smith told students that backless dresses, side cutouts and bared midriffs were among forbidden dress styles. Shelton High's superintendent Freeman Burr told NBC that "those guidelines were announced over the PA system, again, last Friday following concerns raised by some faculty and staff, and even some of our male students, who had some serious concerns about some of the prom dresses that were being shown."

Both students and parents reacted swiftly and angrily. A lot of money had already been spent on dresses, shoes and accessories, and with only a week until the dance many felt at a loss as to what to do. The school tried to say that the dress code was in the student handbook, but parents noted that there were no explicit directives re: prom dresses. And, as Mireya Briceno's story shows, even if you follow strict dress codes, there's still a chance of getting kicked out.

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