School dress codes have for some time been a fiercely debated issue, and one that I have some very strong opinions on. First things first, I want to say I’m not against dress codes. Throughout life, people will go into jobs which require a certain uniform, and I don’t think that introducing children to that early on is necessarily a bad idea. Personally, I wouldn’t care if children and teenagers went to school or college in whatever they wanted, in the same way that I wouldn’t care if there were no dress codes in the workplace. Similarly, though, I don’t have a problem with establishments having uniforms or guidelines on how to dress. There is, however, no doubt in my mind that dress codes can be incredibly toxic and, sadly, especially so for girls.
Researching the dress codes of a range of schools, you can find statements like ‘skirts must be knee length’, ‘minimal makeup’ and ‘shoulders must be covered’. When you pluck these statements out, in 2018, how old-fashioned do they sound? My first issue is with rules such as minimal makeup, natural hair colours and anything similar. Yes, in future jobs students might be required to adhere to these guidelines, but to me, that gives all the more reason to let young people experiment whilst they can! School should not just be about academics, it should be a time during which children are encouraged to find themselves and try different things. Similarly, the world is changing. More and more jobs are becoming inclusive and choosing not to discriminate against applicants with tattoos, piercings or different hairstyles. It seems as though schools are failing to notice the changing times and ultimately, I think encouraging teenagers to experiment is a very positive thing.
Furthermore, I think the way that dress codes force girls to dress ‘modestly’ can be incredibly problematic. I remember whenever we asked why we had to cover our shoulders at school, or why we couldn’t wear a skirt above the knee the only answer you could ever get was that ‘it distracts the younger boys’. First of all, who is getting distracted by a shoulder? Secondly, why is this the girl‘s problem? It seems to me that this a prime example of how boys are wrapped in cotton wool and girls are blamed whenever possible. Why is it not ok for a girl to wear a vest and ‘distract a boy’s learning’, yet it’s deemed acceptable for a girl’s learning to be distracted by being put in isolation all day? Is the boy’s learning more important? Apparently so. More worryingly, this toxic kind of behaviour contributes to victim blaming on a much larger scale. What happens when children grow up being told that girls should cover up because boys just can’t control themselves? It risks creating a view that women are responsible for whatever happens to them whilst wearing something revealing. It may seem extreme, but the link is disturbingly clear. How about instead of shaming and embarrassing girls by telling them what they’re wearing is inappropriate, we start calling out the boys who catcall in the corridors, or unhook a girl’s bra strap when sitting behind them. Of course, though, that’s ridiculous, because ‘boys will be boys’.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the arguments for having a uniform in place; it’s easier for parents when they know what their child needs to wear each day, and reduces the risk of children being bullied if they can’t afford to wear the trendiest clothes. It can also be beneficial for the safety of children; if a child goes missing, a school uniform can help identify and find them quicker. I just feel that in 2018, we need to tone down the strictness of school dress codes. Let’s stop feeding our children toxic messages, and shaming them for wanting to be themselves. One of the greatest parts of being a teenager is being able to experiment with your personal style and figure out who you are, so my message to schools is, why not nurture this?