Dress-Coding: Let’s Take a Closer Look at Your Opinion

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Still from BBC Altered States video report "Dress code debate over schoolgirls 'distracting' boys," produced by Anna Bressanin.

Still from BBC Altered States video report “Dress code debate over schoolgirls ‘distracting’ boys,” produced by Anna Bressanin.


Local parents Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Lisa Duggan, Michael Kasdan and Helena Holgersson felt strongly enough about yet another spring of “dress coding” — where middle school girls are pulled out of class for the length of their shorts — to write a letter to the Superintendent expressing their concerns. Simultaneous national media attention to dress-code angst confirmed they had hit a nerve, and Weiss-Wolf’s subsequent piece published in Slate fanned the flames around this hot topic. The reaction, including this BBC video report, has been overwhelming. Here, Helena Holgersson weighs in on the controversy.


The battle over the dress code? Let’s cut to the chase:

This isn’t about you and me.

You are perfectly entitled to your opinion about what is appropriate for kids to wear to school. You know what they say about opinions and, well, let’s leave it at “everyone’s got one.” I would never try to interfere with your First Amendment right to freedom of speech, no matter how sore my hand gets from palming my face at another willfully obtuse “but the girls really are wearing ridiculously short shorts, I’ve seen them!”

The issue is not that teenage girls sometimes wear dumb shit because that would be a brief argument—oh boy, you got me there! Nor is the issue about a school’s right to set a dress code that protects the safety or hygiene of its student body. After all, who would argue with the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s rationale that, “The purpose of the school dress code is to establish standards for what is acceptable dress and grooming within the school setting with particular concern for health and safety.”

It really doesn’t matter whether you and I agree or disagree about whether this particular dress code—with its now-famous “fingertip-length” rule—is outdated, draconian, appropriate, or even whether we should have a dress code at all.

No. The heart of the matter is an insidious, shape-shifting demon as old as our country itself; monster, a master of disguise whose specialty camouflage is a cloak of complacency that enables it to hide in plain sight.

The issue is discrimination. Gender discrimination to be precise.

Sure, boys with saggy pants or mesh basketball jerseys may occasionally get “coded” by school administrators, but the vast majority of students disciplined for violating the school’s dress code are GIRLS.

I’ll leave to others the emotional argument that I actually can’t even believe still needs to be made (palms face again) about how damaging it is to an adolescent girl’s self image to have her body publicly assessed, evaluated, and critiqued by an adult who is an authority figure.

I’m going to stick to the facts: girls are being removed from instructional time and disciplined based on their physical appearance as girls while boys are not. Girls’ bodies and appearance are singled out and prioritized above boys’ by school administrators.

Note two separate e-blasts from a local middle school principal to the entire school community:

“With the nice weather now here, we are noticing an increase in dress code issues with our female students.”


“Dress code continues to be a concern, specifically with our female students.”

In at least one instance, a young girl was removed from an exam and taken to the nurse’s office where a ruler was held against her thigh to evaluate the “appropriateness” of her skirt.

Oh hey, guess what: all of the above? It’s illegal. This is not my opinion; it’s a federal civil rights law called Title IX enacted in 1972 to prohibit gender discrimination in education. Though we’ve certainly come a long way since our federal government needed to intervene to make sure our daughters were not receiving “separate but equal” educations, put down your cup of smug because we’re not out of the woods yet. While random school administrators ranging from teachers to principals to lunch aides wage jihad against girls’ shorts and tank tops, our daughters are still staring down the barrel of a future where they stand to make 70-80 cents for every dollar our sons earn.

But wait, there’s more.

When it comes to being prepared for the job market of the future, digital and technological skill sets are a clear path to success. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings.Yet men currently outnumber women in nearly every scientific/engineering discipline, with the most alarming disparity in sub-sectors such as computer science, where women earn only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Last year, girls made up just 18.5 percent of all students taking A.P. computer science exams nationwide. In three states, no girls took the test at all. Only 0.4 percent of female college freshman intend to major in computer science, and women made up just 14 percent of all computer science graduates in 2013.

What does this have in common with the dress code?

Title IX.

Despite the fact that girls and boys are almost equally represented in AP math and science classes in high school, we are somehow failing to help them transition, in large enough numbers to make a difference, into careers in these high-paying and challenging fields. I cannot help but wonder about the connection between this persistent and depressing disparity and the onus of constant corporeal discrimination and objectification to which we as a culture, and we as members of the South Orange-Maplewood school system, subject our girls.

So to everyone who suggests that the dress code issue is “frivolous,” I say: come here. Step on over to my ruler. Turn around. Bend over.

Let’s take a closer look at your opinion.


Helena Holgersson is a freelance writer/editor who enjoys serving up bombastic pie with a hearty angry-black-feminist sauce. A recovering academic, Helena currently works as a grant writer for Legal Services NYC and resides in Maplewood, NJ with her three dress-code-rebel daughters.



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