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Sexist school dress codes can be changed

Dress Protest Sofia20 Pierson

In March 2015, Sofia Pierson stood straight and still in an eighth-grade classroom at Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham, Washington. Behind Pierson stood a female classmate in a decorative skirt; she scanned her surroundings nervously as a staff member patrolled the hallways looking for students in violation of the school’s dress code. 

A group of about ten girls had chosen that day to dress up for school, in celebration of their friend who was moving to another state. The girls wore what they thought to be tasteful sundresses and skirts—all just above the knee. The school’s dress code required dress length to extend beyond pinky fingers, and stipulated: “tops should cover front, back and midriff with straps two fingers wide.”

Such provisions are fairly common at high schools and middle schools across the country. Schools often deem certain attire a “distraction” for other students, and it’s usually female-specific clothing—short skirts, dresses above the knee, skin-baring tops—that is seen as the culprit. For example, at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, in one two-week period in 2014, 200 students—90 percent of whom are girls—were cited for dress code violations

There is a growing chorus of students at hundreds of schools who are speaking out against sexist dress codes that are based on the idea that girls’ and women’s attire is to be judged on the basis of boys’ and men’s presumed reaction to it. In most places, policy change in the form of an effective yet inclusive and gender-neutral dress code has been hard to come by. But Fairhaven Middle School is an example of how such change can be made when administrators listen to and work with students.

On that day in March, when Fairhaven staff got word that the girls were wearing outfits that violated the school’s policies, they began to call them into the office. Pierson remembers one staff member visiting classrooms to collect the girls showing too much skin.

Halley Linscheid, one of the girls in the sundress group, said after being singled out by teachers that day, she and her friends knew it was time to start talking to administrators about creating a nonsexist dress code.

The girls scheduled a meeting with the principal the following week, but Linscheid knew a meeting to address the incident wouldn’t be enough to start the ball rolling on changing the policy. She immediately enlisted Pierson’s help—recognizing her peer as a feminist leader on campus.

Pierson, who identifies as agender and uses they/them pronouns, helped take things from there. Although they weren’t singled out as one of the dress code violators, Pierson said they were tired of watching their peers feel anxious about whether what they were wearing could get them sent to the office.

In the days that followed, the group began to work on a campaign to get the attention of Fairhaven faculty. Pierson made a call to tip off the local newspaper, The Bellingham Herald, where a local reporter began to report on the students’ quest for equality. They handed out the first article on the incident to faculty at the school, drawing attention to the issue.

The next week, Pierson and their female peers organized a silent protest, in which they all decided to wear dresses to school on the same day. The group had two rules: They had to wear an outfit that fit the dress code, which Pierson admits was hard with such strict guidelines. And the girls couldn’t tell staff about their protest. They wanted to gain attention to start an effective dialogue, instead of getting shot down before getting started.

Pierson’s mother, Ana Cuevas, said she was appalled at how the conservatively the girls had to dress in order to conform to the dress code guidelines. “The night before, girls were sending Sofia pictures…. Nobody could have an outfit that they could wear. I was like, ‘There are so many more important things in life.’”

When the group showed up to school the next day dressed to the (school-approved) nines, they got the attention of faculty and staff. Pierson says it was obvious that the protestors were making a point about the strict provisions of the code, and that effective change couldn’t be solved with a single meeting. They wanted to keep talking.

Fairhaven Principal Robert Kalahan said he knew this issue needed to result in a dialogue with those involved. He had the counselor join him in sitting down with the concerned students to reach a compromise on a dress code that worked best for everyone.

“We talked about what happened and the reaction the girls had to it, and in our conversations, the number-one thing that came out was the sense of shame that some of the girls expressed from the situation,” he said. “Based on the descriptions of how staff addressed issues, I agreed with them."

So Kalahan invited other parents, including Cuevas, to devise a dress code that would be immediately enforced that spring. 

“Ultimately, we wanted a dress code that, number one, didn't disrupt school, number two, respected everybody involved, and number three, was allowable for student individuality to come out,” Kalahan said. “And based upon those as our criteria, we came up with our district-wide policy at the middle level, which basically doesn't designate anything about length or the measurements or anything but still keeps the information of having safe messages and not being disruptive to the overall school or any community.”

The new Fairhaven dress code uses language such as “Clothing will cover torso, midriff and backside,” which Kalahan pointed out takes away the gender-specific language.

“It was very important to make it gender-neutral," Kalahan said. "We had pieces that were directed toward girls, and some that were more addressed to the boys’ dress code issues. We wanted to make it very clear that we're not targeting one or the other.”

Now a first-year student at Sehome High School, Pierson said they are satisfied with the revised dress code at their middle school and even noticed that students were able to be more body-positive.

“[The new dress code] opened up the rest of everyone’s wardrobe because there is probably half of their wardrobes that is tucked away for the weekends or after school,” they said. “I was even being complimented; people would say, ‘I really like those shorts,’ or something. So then all of the sudden, I felt more positive definitely body- and dress-wise, and I never expected that to happen.”

And though Pierson thought their school’s revised dress code made sense, they think the best solution would be no dress code at all. Because when it comes to freedom for all students, including those who are gender-nonconforming, the fewer restrictions the better.

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