On Tuesday, the US Government Accountability Office released a report analyzing statewide school dress codes and illustrating their many pitfalls.
“While school districts often cite safety as a reason for dress codes, many dress codes include elements that can make the school environment less equitable and less safe for students. For example, an estimated 60 percent of dress codes have rules that involve measuring students’ bodies and clothing — which can result in adults touching students,” they wrote.
They also found that counties are more likely to restrict items typically worn by girls than those typically worn by boys. In addition, “most dress codes also include rules for student hair, hairstyles, and headgear, which researchers and district officials say may disproportionately affect black students and students of certain religions and cultures,” with disciplinary implications.
Clothing was also a hot topic on Globe’s Facebook parent group, with one parent wondering how “girls’ clothes go from too cute as a toddler to too sexy as a tween.” Another asked when to “draw the line on things that you feel are inappropriately sexualizing girls at too young an age… How did 10 or 11 become the time for that?”
In the interest of (non-tailoring) transparency: I have two boys, one still wearing Carter’s sweatpants and the other wearing a banana Halloween costume to school. But as I covered this article, I heard from so many families—some of whom asked not to be named for unpopular or sensitive opinions—about the nature of children’s clothing, mostly girls’ clothing, and the complicated issues they reflect: about bodies Autonomy and the very nature of sexuality and gender in a vulnerable phase where children explore their identities, test boundaries and wrestle with their self-image.
So I’m going to tackle this story in a few parts. We start with the logistics. Where do you shop? Options are literally sparse, and girls’ parents seem to have it even worse.
“I can’t remember having such a limited choice when shopping for clothes as a tween and teenager. Basically, if you want to look age appropriate, you need to buy belly shirts or skimpier things, unless you’re choosing things that are intended for a much younger audience. It’s the tight shirts, the tanky shirts, it’s the cropped shorts,” says Gillian Fachner of Weston, whose daughter helped lead an initiative at her school to change the dress code to include more girls’ fashion.
Rochester’s Kelly Medeiros, frustrated with shopping for her 11-year-old daughter, is more outspoken.
“It was almost impossible to find appropriate but stylish clothes this year. Everything, even at Target, was crop tops that were just below the bust line or had cutouts. We tried Old Navy, a few places in the mall and so on. It was impossible to find shirts that fit her needs without “unicorns and rainbows,” which my daughter called childish,” she says, saying her daughter ultimately chose to dress like a “potato sack,” because other options were too revealing.
But this is just the beginning. We will also look at dress codes and their validity. What is appropriate for school or home? Should more schools adopt uniforms, or would that also be divisive? Some parents believe that school should be treated like a shop, with modest clothing.
“Children need to understand that there is clothing for different environments and circumstances. Would you wear a crop top to church? Or a wedding? Or work?” said one parent, who asked not to be identified, explaining that it would take “tin bullets” to say such a thing publicly.
But what about self-expression? And does clothing regulation inherently target girls more than boys?
“I [find] The act of dressing elementary age girls because they show stomachs or shoulders is absolutely disgusting. The Medford School Committee recently changed the dress code to allow children to dress freely as long as their privates are covered and their clothing is not overtly offensive. Part of what makes some kids look different in these trendy clothes has to do with their comfort with their developing bodies, and kids, especially girls, shouldn’t feel ashamed of that,” says Jennifer Flynn of Medford.
And finally, we’re going to talk about double standards and the nature of gender biased fashion marketing to young children. For example, Acton’s Patsy Bandes, out of desperation, buys her athletic 10-year-old daughter in the boys’ department.
“My daughter is very rough on her bike and scooter. She wants things that cover her body in the same way. I have to buy things labeled ‘boys’ — and I put that in quotation marks — to get things that aren’t tiny and don’t show her panties,” she says. “Clothes in the girls’ department are just a mini version of adult clothing, while clothes in the boys’ department are designed for children.”
Bandes also points out that there is a larger and far more problematic question: Why is clothing divided into two genders? Why isn’t there more durable gender neutral clothing, especially for young children?
“Up until puberty, all bodies are sort of the same shape. I think the way forward is to find sustainable companies that try to meet that demand, because I think that mass-market clothing – and here’s my soapbox – is mostly male-designed and mostly mini- adult versions of clothing is being designed and really starting to model the female body as a sexualized object. I’m trying to find the companies that are really going to counteract that, and it’s a privilege to be able to do that,” she says.
She likes Princess Awesome and Boy Wonder, a Washington, DC-based e-tailer dedicated to anti-stereotype clothing, with gender-themed themes like science, math, mixtapes, and pianos. (There’s also a Nerdy Adult section, which I’ll be browsing shortly.)
So: stay tuned for more. And as always, I welcome your opinion. Where do you shop? What frustrates you about the experience? How does the children’s clothing industry need to change? How does your school deal with dress codes or uniforms? I promise I’ll work hard to do justice to the topic.
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Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.