Dress code harms students’ learning environment
By ABIGAIL STINSON ’17
In Evanston, Ill., seventh grade girls are standing firm against the administration on what they believe to be a key issue at their school: the right to wear leggings to class. The school’s current ban on leggings is, by many accounts, unevenly enforced in favor of young women with less-developed body types, and it was supposedly put into place to prevent Haven Middle School’s young men from being “distracted” from their lessons.
The young women responded by protesting that such an arbitrary restriction only places more pressure on girls, many of whom are just beginning to come to terms with their physical development and their body image. Moreover, they argued, dress-code regulations for boys at the school are nowhere near as strictly implemented.
In an objection to this double standard, a group of girls started a petition and wore leggings to school on a predetermined day. This act of defiance has opened up a much-needed discussion about dress codes and their place in modern schools.
Now more than in the past, the idea of modesty in dress is a controversial subject. For some, it is a virtue, but for others, it is an outdated relic of a cultural mindset that sought to censor female expression. There is no blanket guideline that can address all of the conflicting viewpoints on this issue; each school must do what it deems best based on its cultural makeup and its history as an institution. Above all, schools seeking to regulate student dress ought to strive for fairness in every step of the process. It is in this last respect that Haven Middle School has failed.
Certainly, the school’s goal to create a “positive and respectful learning environment” is laudable. Unfortunately, its ban on leggings sets the worst example and falls considerably short of this ideal. A good learning environment is a place where all students can stand on equal footing to intellectually engage with each other and with the world.
A young woman who is pulled aside and told that she is “distracting” her classmates with her body, particularly if she is further along in puberty than some of her peers, receives the opposite message. She learns that she must be especially careful with the clothes she chooses or risk being penalized just because she is a little curvier than her classmates. Coming to terms with puberty is hard enough without feeling as though one is being punished for their inherent body type.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with modesty standards, but when they are so inconsistently applied, a subtle distinction arises between students who can and can’t get away with wearing clothing that is right on the edge of violating the school’s modesty code.
Additionally, the administration’s stubborn insistence that leggings engender a negative and harmful learning environment creates a misleading correlation between a classmate’s appearance and one’s ability to learn. The reasoning behind their policy implies that who girls wear leggings prevent their male classmates from absorbing information. The idea that these boys should be held accountable for their behavior is, of course, utterly preposterous.
Rather than defaulting to a position of recalcitrant defense, Haven Middle School ought to use this protest as an opportunity for a dialogue. After all, the students’ reasoned expression of their concerns has already proven that they can present well-developed, intelligent opinions. Their protest against what they believe to be an unjust policy demonstrates their awareness of the control they have over both their words and their bodies.
The next step is to cultivate this awareness into a lasting accountability. Developing a sense of personal responsibility for one’s conduct, including one’s dress, is arguably one of the most important lessons to be learned during adolescence. Whatever else happens, Haven Middle School certainly should not allow such an opportunity for such spontaneous, pertinent learning—the best kind of learning—to pass them by.