High school students and dress codes have never been friends, but there's a healthy balance between sensible rules and discriminatory ones. I know this struggle intimately: When I was in high school 20 years ago, I protested what I saw as the sexist requirement that girls wear dresses under their graduation gowns — pants weren't allowed. I got the rule changed following an impassioned speech to the vice principal and a petition full of my fellow students' signatures.
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So I see a little of myself in Reese Fischer's Instagram post (below), when she writes of her protest against her school's dress code policy:
The Charleston County School of the Arts (CCSOA) dress code states: "Extreme clothing or accessories that would interfere with the learning process, cause a disruption of the educational environment, or be a health or safety hazard are prohibited." Included are the understandable banning of drug-promotion references, violent or discriminatory language on T-shirts, et cetera.
But then the code gets into examples of "inappropriate" clothing, which includes: "Backless or strapless blouses or dresses, halter tops, strapless tops, bare-shouldered tops, or spaghetti straps." Girls at other schools around the country have taken issue with the idea that showing shoulders is somehow "distracting" for male students. (If you drill down, that's the argument for not allowing them at many schools). This idea that girls should dress to prevent boys from thinking or feeling certain things — rather than teaching boys how to handle those feelings — strikes many students as unfair and backwards. Why should girls have to wear less comfortable clothing because of what other people think? Why is it that simply being a girl wearing clothes is considered a distraction? This question has inspired the Twitter hashtag #NotADistraction.
(Strangely enough, at my public high school in the late '90s, tank tops were worn by both guys and girls of all sizes and — gasp! — we all managed to graduate.)
When we call girls & their clothing a distraction, we are saying that the male gaze matters more than their empowerment #notadistraction— Stefanie Grossano (@stefgrossano) September 29, 2015
But Fischer and her classmates at this North Charleston, South Carolina, school are upset not that their school has a dress code (or even the specifics of the dress code), but that it is enforced unfairly, in a way that stigmatizes girls for perceived sexuality, not just rule-breaking: "In the summer, you see guys walking around in muscle tank tops with half their sides hanging out and their pants hanging down, and they don't get called out for that," Fischer told the Post and Courier. "They don't get called out for wearing a hat, but a girl will get called out for a short skirt in a second," she said. A plus-sized girl at school was told that she shouldn't wear certain things that other, smaller girls could, and other students weren't just asked to change clothes, but berated about what they were wearing before being sent to the office.
If the school's aim really is to maintain "a positive influence on the school climate," which the dress code states is its purpose, berating students and using inflammatory language is clearly the opposite of that.
The students are using that staple of high school English — "The Scarlet Letter" — to drive their point home, donning scarlet "A's" on their clothes or bodies, taking issue with the idea that the way girls dress should be policed so heavily, as Hester Prynne's own actions led to her social banishment in Hawthorne's novel. They've started a Facebook group called Not 'A' Distraction, and many girls — and some guys who support them — are wearing the letters to school each day. To CCSOA's credit, the administration has been responsive: Robert Perrineau, high school assistant principal at School of the Arts said: “We do want to make sure that we’re all giving that reminder and giving attention to any individual student situation in the same way. We want the point to be made, but we want to be respectful.”
But as of this post's publication, the rule has not yet changed.
Often, people will say that high school student complaints about issues such as these are silly or unimportant, but I couldn't disagree more. Getting a small rule changed in my own high school led me to found a student group in college, and to go on to use my voice to talk about what I think is wrong — and to support what's right — through my writing. (It's no surprise that Reese Fischer is an aspiring writer.) My own rule-challenge literally led to my career, so I don't think there's anything "silly" about these protests at all.