Sunday Reflections: How I Came to Love School Uniforms, a discussion of girls, boys, and the dangerous message of dress codes
I am an artistic type, married to an artist. Creativity and self expression is very important to us. So when we moved to this new place and found out that my kids would have to wear school uniforms, I cried. I literally cried saline tears, bereft that my daughters would be shackled by this dress code that limited their self expression and caged their identity inside the threads of four generic colors and polo shirt collar.
And then I completely changed my mind.
For one, my mornings are, it turns out, amazingly swift and easy. The girls have 4 different color choices of polo shirts and two different color choices of pants (skirts, shorts or slacks). What this means is that they literally don’t care. So they reach into the shirt drawer, grab a shirt, repeat with the pants, and then – voila – they are dressed. No trying on multiple outfits. No fits or tears. The morning is amazingly simple because they simply don’t care. My mornings are drama free, outside of the occasional bad hair day and dear lord please don’t wake me up while it’s still dark outside harrumphing.
I worried about the cost of it all but school uniforms of this nature turned out to be much cheaper than buying their regular clothes. During the summer every store around here starts selling their polo style shirts for $5.00. Pants almost always go on sale for $10.00. And the last two years we’ve actually gotten all of their clothes at the local thrift store for below this price. I can buy a whole weeks worth of uniforms for around $75 – or less – and then all we have to do is laundry, which we have to do any way.
The only real problem in the uniform code are things like the shoes and socks. I know friends whose kids have have been asked to remove their shoes and when their socks were found not to be white or black, they were sent home which is incredibly ridiculous to me. And I get frustrated with having to force my girls to wear brown or black closed toe shoes or lace tying tennis shoes while the teachers wear flip-flips. Not even fancy flip-flops, just plain old fashioned flip-flops. The Tween is smart enough to question the disparity of the rules and it’s certainly easier as a parent to answer those questions if the answer is because the teachers are held to a higher, more professional standard, and in this case they are not.
So this dress code – these uniforms – are not perfect, but it is far better than most other dress codes because it isn’t sexualizing our girls and sending the wrong message to both genders. You see, many dress codes target girls, clearly outlining what it is they can and can’t wear with the underlying motivation being the boy students around you can’t control themselves so therefore we must limit you and your choices to protect our boys. It’s a maddening message on so many levels: Girls shouldn’t be forced to define themselves in terms of what is best for others, in this case the boys surely can and should be expected to exhibit self control and take responsibility for all aspects of their behavior and education; and the girls aren’t singled out and given the message that boys and their education are more important than you and your bodies/comfort/clothing.
Interestingly enough, our school districts dress code is in fact incredibly sexist in one way and it targets boys. You see, girls can have hair of any length but boys here have a very strict hair code inspired by the antiquated notion that long hair is feminine. Therefor, our boys are not allowed to sport long hair.
The big argument in terms of being pro-uniform is that it helps minimize bullying and lets those who are economically disadvantaged blend in more easily. This is a good theory, though not fully actualized. It certainly makes it easier for the less advantaged kids to blend in, but there are other tell tale markers like backpacks, shoes, lunches, etc. that make it possible for those kids who want to look hard enough to suss out their newest and latest targets. School uniforms are not the end all that it claims to be in this regards, but I do think it makes it easier for more of the kids to feel comfortable among their peers.
The interesting thing is that the students still find ways in which to express themselves. Their personality pops up in the backpacks they choose to carry, the jewelry they wear, the way they choose to embellish themselves.
When I was in high school, I had a skirt. It was, actually, kind of a plaid school uniform looking skirt ironically. One day I was wearing it with a long sleeve turtleneck. It was the complete opposite of sexy in any way. But it was just a smidge too short. And I do mean a smidge. I remember being forced to bend on my knees in the middle of the school hallway while a teacher fretted over whether or not it was worth it to send me home. It wasn’t, but she did.
My first job, I worked at a movie theater. We had to wear black pants and a white button up shirt every day to work. We paid for and thus chose our own, but there was a dress code. At every library I have worked at there has been a dress code. I’m not opposed to the idea of dress codes in schools, but I am opposed to dress codes that are motivated by sexist thinking, reinforces dangerous cultural messages and gender norms, or in any way suggests that my girls, that any girls, are responsible for the behaviors of anyone but themselves – they are not. This messaging is dangerous because it tends to lend itself to both slut shaming and victim blaming. To suggest that what a girl wears should be limited to help boys control themselves is incredibly dangerous.
When I was in high school I crushed on several different boys at different times. I know how to read some basic Latin, debate, and play chess because of a crush on one boy or another. I could sit there and spend an entire period staring at a boy. But I also graduated in the top 10 percent of my class with almost straight A’s because I made the choice every day to do what I needed to do. My education was my responsibility and I took that responsibility for it. It didn’t matter that the boy had glorious hair that I wanted to daydream about running my hands through, it didn’t matter if he wore a too tight t-shirt that made me fantasize about what was underneath, it didn’t matter that I could imagine a hundred different scenarios of how he might lean into me while standing at my locker and give me that amazing first kiss. What mattered was that every day I made the active choice to pay attention in class and learn. We should expect the same of our boys. It doesn’t matter if a girl is wearing the very threatening spaghetti strap tank top, an alarm bell ringing pair of yoga pants, or supposedly slutty jeans that hug her posterior in just the right way – boys are still responsible for their own behavior and girls are responsible for their own and everyone who identifies as somewhere else along the gender spectrum is similarly responsible for their behavior. The truth is, school is the perfect time to be teaching members of the human race this very important life lesson.
But if we must have dress codes, I enthusiastically support gender neutral uniform codes that emphasize what you can wear as opposed to what you can’t wear that creates an equal school system for all persons and, it turns out, can minimize cost and help those who are economically disadvantaged blend in and feel more like they belong with their peers.
When my children walk in the door after a day at school, the first thing they do is change their clothes. The 5-year-old will only wear tank tops and knit shorts without pockets (she knows who she is and what she likes). The Tween is less particular and it is still kind of a non issue for her. But the truth is, no part of our day involves the clothing stress that I remember from my own school days. There is no angst and wringing of hands about whether or not it is the right thing, or a good enough thing, or a thing that they can wear like an armor to make them blend in – it’s just this thing they have to wear so they simply don’t care and it is beautiful. And the best part is this: at no time are my girls being told that they are somehow responsible for the boys in their class and they are made to feel like they matter just as much as their male peers in the education environment. That’s a message I can get behind so bring on school uniforms.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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