dress codeBy Sarah Vander Schaaff

What adolescent girls wear to school is a subject of much consternation, judging from the parent meeting I attended at my children’s school today. The conversation was lead by a psychologist trained in the treatment of eating disorders, body image and trauma, but voices rose highest when talking about whose skirt had been measured with a ruler.

The three-fold theme of the talk, Gender, Body Image and Dress had complex implications, from distinguishing our understanding of “gender” from that of “sex” to looking at the effects of negative body image on depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

But the logistics required for a school to enforce a dress code took priority over these fundamentals, and I realized how difficult it is to unwind a problem that is laced with a underlying message: you’ve failed as a parent if your child dresses in a way deemed provocative.

Much of the conversation turned subjective and often contradictory: young girls should not be made responsible for the responses of young boys; boys should not objectify girls; adolescence is a time to resolve the conflict between identity and confusion, but it is also a time to take risks into the unknown. And then there’s the blunt plea: boys shouldn’t be able to tell the color of a girl’s underwear.

We didn’t talk much about gender identity or the pressure put on boys in their choices for clothing.  And only in the context of a potential uniform did the discussion touch upon the cost of all these clothes.

None of this is to say the discussion was not a good endeavor. It was. I discovered that being on the cusp of watching a daughter enter puberty is much different than being in the thick of it. And that the golden rule of parenting in a communal setting is, and will always be: never assume others have the same perspective you do.

The fact that there were parents of high school students as well as elementary school children in the room was not insignificant, though. There is a relationship between what older girls wear and what the younger ones will want or even how they feel about themselves.

According to a study reported in the journal, Psychology of Women Quarterly:

“The researchers…found that female 5th and 6th graders who were educated alongside older girls reported a greater desire to be thin as well as less satisfaction with and more self-consciousness about their bodies. For example, 5th graders who attended school with 6th through 8th graders had a mean body dissatisfaction score that was 1.7 times higher than girls in the same grade who attended a typical elementary school.”

The subject of clothing had been on my mind this week, in particular, because this fall I skipped the back to school shopping for my nine-year-old. Today she noticed.

“I have nothing to wear!” she lamented as she stood in her closet. She was right.

I just don’t want to go to Justice, I thought to myself.

We are at an age where the old stand-by’s of leggings and a cotton dress no longer fly. Things from catalogs don’t seem to fit. And the ones in stores are made out of napkins.

And this brings me to the underlying theme I wanted most to discuss at the meeting: How do we mitigate the influences of retail stores? The psychologist who spoke cited studies saying social concerns and peer pressure were the top things girls consider when choosing clothes. That peer pressure is influenced by what’s being sold, of course.  I once heard a fellow teacher describe this phenomenon as the  “individual expression” of wearing what everyone else in wearing.

At the end of the discussion, I was sure of only one thing: my daughter needed new pants. It wasn’t going to be easy to find them given my concerns about sweatshop labor and quality and hers for something somewhat trendy and not reminiscent pre-k.

But I am hopeful.

I will not be able to control what is being sold to tweens and teens. I will not be able to control what other families allow. I will not be able to dictate the trends in fashion, or even what policies my school ultimately adopts.

But I can continue to deconstruct the images we see; to talk about what she likes or doesn’t; to let her talk about what’s on her mind as her body goes through new changes and how it feels when everyone is wearing something she may or may not think is for her.

Justice pants 2I may even take her to Justice, with some severe limitations. (These leggings to the left, for example, are modest, true, but I would argue still just a bit distracting.)

What I can’t do, however, is let my daughter grow up thinking the messages at the mall and from her peers are the only answers to the daily question: what do I wear today?


Top photo: Urban Outfitters. Second photo: Justice.

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