Every other week, there seems to be a new report about a preteen or teen who was reprimanded for the outfit she selected for school. A spaghetti strap tank that didn’t sit well with a conservative administrator, a pair of shorts that were considered “suggestive” — the list goes on. And yes, you guessed it: These dress codes often seem to have been created for the sole purpose of policing girls’ bodies.
Whether your child attends a school with standardized uniforms or one that allows more fashion liberties, they may be subject to scrutiny from teachers, the administration and other students based on their attire. And sure, it does happen that a boy may be sent home for an “inappropriate” T-shirt or cargo pants, but it doesn’t send the same message as banning a girl for showing some shoulder or choosing a pantsuit for prom.
While the very thought of your daughter’s body being judged in this way likely has your feminist blood boiling, an important question bubbles to the surface: How do you talk to your child about these sometimes sexist standards? And also, how is that judgment of her appearance influencing her sense of self-worth and confidence?
Here, psychologists offer advice to get through this tricky discussion effectively and compassionately.
How dress codes have evolved
Are you trying to recall your own time in high school in hopes of offering your child insight about the dress code drama — but you keep coming up blank? Well, maybe there was no drama back in your day. As licensed family and marriage therapist Catherine Pearlman explains, dress codes have become increasingly more restrictive and enforced in recent decades. For example, back in the 1970s, ultra-mini-skirts were trendy and welcome on campus — not considered a “distraction” worthy of being sent home. Today, Pearlman explains, it’s the opposite.
“Now, the party line is that clothing for girls has just become too ‘distracting’ for the boys. No one is worried about the girls being distracted. Girls are regularly required to cover their legs, avoid wearing yoga pants without a long shirt, no bare shoulders and other rules,” she says.
While of course some sort of dress decorum is required at schools, Pearlman says the psychological impact on girls comes when all the onus is placed on them — and only them. “Girls being consistently penalized and sexualized is not only detrimental to the mental health of the girls, but it sends a very wrong message to the boys,” she explains.
Why your child may or may not struggle
Pearlman has witnessed dress code double standards firsthand; her daughter was sent home twice for her gym class attire. Pearlman’s child gets overheated when she’s running around on the playground in pants, so she selected simple black shorts to wear. “The gym teacher told the parents and kids that no one could wear ‘yoga pants’ to gym class because the boys could get turned on and it would be embarrassing for the boys,” she shares.
While this was infuriating for Pearlman, her daughter was less upset and more confused. She says most children “don’t understand the problem. None of the kids are bothered by the clothing. It is the adults imposing gratuitous concern,” Pearlman adds. “It is hard enough to be a teenage girl who has no control over how her body develops. Schools make girls who don’t fit into the mold — taller or plus-size girls or those who develop early — feel unnecessarily self-conscious and uncomfortable about their bodies.”
All this makes the conversation that much more difficult for parents. Let’s say your daughter asks why she can’t wear a tank top to school; if you answer that it would be “too tempting” for her male classmates, that can be terrifying — she’s forced to suddenly see herself as a sexualized object in everyone else’s eyes. So, what should you say instead?
How to talk to your kid
As you approach this topic, Pearlman stresses the importance of coming to the table with a listening ear and a challenging tongue. You want to encourage your child to express how they’re feeling about the school dress code or any repercussions thereof — whether that’s anger, disbelief, sadness, fear, etc. — and allow the preteen or teen to work through these issues. You can also teach your daughter strategies for how to stand up for herself — and if she feels so inspired to incite change at her school.
Pearlman says to put on your therapist hat and ask open-ended questions. “This will help your child express why they feel the code is inappropriate and how it made them feel to be reprimanded,” she adds.
Once your kid has verbalized those emotions, you can then decide together what to do next. After all, talk is talk, but action is what incites change. “Send letters to the principal and superintendent. Start a petition. Action feels better than sitting back and stewing about something,” Pearlman explains.
Family and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish explains that it’s often student involvement and outcry that can enforce policy change. Case in point: Some California kids got their school dress code changed to be gender-neutral so both boys and girls were following the same rules. If your child wants their voice to be heard, do all you can to support that by explaining the advocacy process. “Kids need to be educated and informed by both their school administrators as well as their parents,” Walfish adds.
Bottom line: While schools are enforcing sexist dress code policies, your child has the opportunity to make a difference and help pave the way for future generations to be treated justly. How can you inspire her to speak up?