News & Politics

New Dress Code for California School District: Must Cover Genitals, Buttocks, and Nipples

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A California school district recently announced that they are doing away with their dress code. Alameda Unified School District says that students may now wear whatever they want as long as it “covers genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples with opaque material” and doesn’t feature “images or language depicting violence, drugs, alcohol, hate speech, profanity and pornography.”  The decision is being hailed as “feminist” — parenting site Scary Mommy, for example, called it “feminist AF” — for seeking to diminish “body shaming” and discrimination against girls.

When school dress codes make the news — as they frequently do — it is often because a teacher or school administrator has made a ridiculous comment about why the dress code is being enforced. A school principal in Missouri, for example, recently came under fire for saying that girls shouldn’t show their “boobs, bellies or butts so they don’t distract the boys.” A Florida high school student who came to school in a t-shirt but no bra was told she was too “distracting” and had to put band-aids on her nipples before going back to class. These comments — and others like them — have been criticized for sexualizing girls, and painting boys as “oversexualized creatures who will implode at the sight of an exposed shoulder.”

Obviously, shaming girls about their bodies in front of their peers, or assuming that boys are just sex monsters who can’t keep their hands off girls’ bodies, is not a good plan. Nor is implying that girls are somehow responsible for the bad behavior of boys. And school officials who make comments like the ones mentioned above should be called out for it. But instances like those don’t mean the dress code itself isn’t warranted — they only mean that its purpose needs clarification.

The problem with doing away with the dress code entirely is that it implies that the school does not intend to impart a set of values about how one presents oneself in the world. But it obviously does. I mean, otherwise why specify that genitals and nipples must be covered? If the school is now trying to imply that there’s no shame in flaunting your body, then why not allow students to come to school naked?  (I suppose a hygiene argument could be made for covering genitals, but not nipples!) The truth is, a dress code isn’t really about sex — or naked bodies — at all, it’s about teaching kids to think about how they present themselves to the world.

The same document that presents Alameda Unified School District’s “revised dress code” states that “courses that include attire as part of the curriculum (for example, marketing, public speaking, and job readiness) may include assignment-specific dress.” This implies an understanding that certain situations in life require certain attire. Presumably students in those types of courses must wear appropriate business attire because when attending a job or a public speaking event, the way you present yourself to your peers and superiors matters. Your attire signals the seriousness with which you take the occasion. When a school requires a dress code, it is offering to educate its students on how best to present themselves for success in life.

A school is an institution — not a living room or a sports field or a pajama party — and, as such, it can require a level of formality. Schools teach things, and learning that dressing in your pajamas, for example, makes you look like you don’t care is a good lesson to learn.

If Alameda Unified School District — and other school districts around the country — completely do away with their dress codes, they are making a statement, but not necessarily the one they mean to make. Instead of allowing students to come to school wearing nothing but a pair of underpants and a set of pasties — thus implying that this is acceptable attire for an institution of learning — schools could educate families on the rationale behind the dress code. They could work to ensure that dress codes are not being enforced in ways that shame and target certain students. They could revise their dress code if revision is necessary. But ditching it altogether just replaces one potentially questionable message with another.

These days, institutions are quick to concede the point if they come under any kind of fire from feminists in the media. It’s easier, it seems, to just give in than to take a stand and explain your values. But if the values die in the name of feminism, where does that leave us? Maybe we’d better stock up on pasties?