For the past four months, my friend and I have been trying to change the AMS dress code, and we finally did it, well kind of. I thought I was addressing the dress code policy, but the real issue was people's attitudes and prejudices, and that's going to take a lot longer to change. Although, most people agreed with what we were doing, there were many people who didn't. After multiple meetings and multiple rough patches, here is our story.
Last October, I was dress coded for the first time. A teacher called me out for a visible bra strap as I ran to a Spanish class I was late for. For the rest of the day, I felt embarrassed and as if I had done something wrong. I am not alone. When I brought this up to my friends in our Journalism class, many girls pitched in on their experience with getting dress coded. “When I got dress coded for my shorts being too short, it was super awkward, I kind of feel ashamed of my legs.” In our conversation it seemed to be a widespread issue that girls have a drop in confidence after being dress coded, and no student anywhere deserves to feel that. I looked up the Asheville Middle School Dress Code Policy, because I was curious about why all of these girls were getting dress coded, and in my opinion over half of the policies were directed at only girls (No shorts too short, no holes in pants, no midriff), and none of the policies were directed at only guys. My friend Ginger and I decided that this bias needed to be changed.
Over the next 4 months, we had meetings with our principal, our assistant principal, our AMS teachers and staff members and the School Improvement Team.
We started off by speaking to our principal in early November. Our principal read a letter I had written about the inequalities of our dress code. She told me that she loved what we were doing and to look into our other Asheville City School dress code policies. With mine and Ginger’s enthusiasm for this, that’s the first thing we did when we stepped out of her office. We found that the ACS board policy, the Student Code of Conduct, and the Asheville Middle Policy are all different, which then leaves staff members to interpret which dress code they want to use, and leads to students trying to figure out which dress code to follow. All of Asheville City Schools dress codes should be the same. The next week we went back to our principal and showed her what we found; she told us that we should work on a dress code proposal to replace the AMS dress code, and scheduled us to present at the upcoming School Improvement Team meeting. Ginger and I didn't know what to expect for this meeting. We did not know which people were on the School Improvement Team. We didn't know if they would support what we were doing or not. However, we did think that this would be the meeting that ended it all, and it would be the meeting where they decided yes or no to our proposal. Clearly, we were wrong, because here we are with a dress code that hasn't been changed over 4 months later.
At the meeting, we delivered a presentation that had our proposal in it. Our proposal policy made it so girls had a wider range of clothing that they could wear. We also changed the words skirts and dresses into hemlines to become gender neutral. Standing in front of the SIT members and delivering our presentation was one of the most nerve racking things I have ever done. I had never been a fan of speaking in front of people, and it made it 10 times harder that some of the people in the room didn't agree with what I was saying. A couple of the members disagreed with our proposal because they didn't think it was appropriate for students to show up to school wearing a tank top, and they thought that our idea of an appropriate short length was too short. We were invited back to the next SIT meeting and we were given lots of feedback on how we could make our proposal better.
As Ginger and I worked on fixing our proposal we thought that we should create a student survey to gain information on what students thought about the dress code policies. We included questions like “Have you been dress coded, what were you dress coded for, and do you think the dress code is gender bias.” We received 455 student responses from all grades. Our data showed that females were dress coded over 20% more than males, and African Americans were dress coded 10% more than Caucasian students; this is a huge gap, considering we only had 77 African American students respond and 300 White students respond. Our data also showed that if you were in 8th grade you were over 2x as likely to get dress coded than a 6th grader, and over 60% of our AMS students believed the dress code was gender bias.
Ginger and I also made a teacher survey to learn more about the enforcement of the dress code; we received 61 staff responses. We found that over 77% of teachers had dress coded a student this year.
On January 24th, we went back to the SIT members and delivered a different presentation with our survey data and our updated proposal. To make a point we had 2 different girls, with 2 different body types,wear shorts that fit into the proposed dress code policy, although not the current dress code. We wanted the SIT members to see a real life example of the policy (shorts must be no more than 8 inches from top of knee), although bringing models to a presentation didn't go quite as I planned. I watched girls’ confidence deflate with comments that I recall as crude and demeaning. Comments like “I just don't want to see a girls bra”. One comment was made about how boys had it rough because they had to see the clothing choices of the girls they went to school with. Comments were made calling these real life models distractions and inappropriate. “I felt like I was being treated more like a mannequin than a human being with feelings and clothing preferences” one of our models said, “I feel like the bodies of young girls have been objectified and degraded, and it was interesting to be in a position where I could see first hand the opinions of adults when talking about the bodies and clothing choices of girls in our school community.”
Luckily, thanks to the amazing models who put up with the all of the comments, the SIT members agreed with our rule about shorts: “Hemlines must be at most 8 inches from top of knee”. Although they disagreed with our undergarments rule: “Clothing must cover undergarments (waistbands and straps excluded)”. Since there was not an agreement, we were invited to the next SIT work session. We were told that we would receive a final answer at that meeting.
As Ginger and I prepared for the next SIT meeting, we took pictures of students at AMS who were showing a bra strap or a waistband. We wanted to show these pictures to the SIT members to prove that showing a bra strap and waistband is not a big deal and that these students have no intention of distracting anyone or taking away time from education.
We showed the SIT members our pictures on February 7th. Throughout the SIT meeting, I tried to stay quiet, because I wanted to hear what everyone was saying. When the meeting was over, I was asked if I was upset, and I responded with “No, not at all.”
If I were to change one thing, instead of saying no, I would have responded to the teachers with the following statement: ‘No, I am not upset, I just have a difference of opinion. What I see in these pictures are my friends and young teenagers, and what you see is seductive girls and distractions to boys education. My goal was to raise awareness in teachers and staff members and show that girls are not distractions, although clearly, I didn't fully reach my goal. I feel this way because some of you think that when that girl in the picture got dressed this morning that she was getting dressed for a boy, although I can assure you that none of these girls had any boy in mind when putting on that shirt. Rather they put on that shirt because that is what they feel comfortable and confident in, and no one has any right to go and break that confidence down by telling them that what they are wearing isn't appropriate, and should not be worn in a school environment, or is a distraction to others.’
When I think about all of the meetings, and although we had a lot of support, some hurtful comments were made. I am not sure I would do this again, and at some points in the process, I wanted to stop working with it and give up. These thoughts have gone through my mind multiple times, because of the awful things people have said to me and my friends. I have heard comments that I wish I had never heard. When someone looks at a picture of my friend and said that they see a seductive girl, I began to lose respect for that teacher, because I wonder what that teacher thinks of me when I show up to school in a shirt that shows my bra strap. Are our teachers judging students by our clothing? Do our teachers treat us differently because of our clothing? Do teachers think that we are trying to seduce our fellow classmates? These are all thoughts and questions that I wish I never had to ask myself. That is why I wanted to stop, I didn't want to see this other side of these teachers, it concerned me that teachers did not realize their remarks could be so hurtful and have such a big impact on Ginger and me.
At the Feb 7th meeting the SIT members made the final decision to reword one of the requirements to incorporate a different rule.They didn't seem to understand the point Ginger and I were making. I went to one of my most supportive teachers, I wanted to tell her that I was giving up and it wasn't worth it. I told her that I never should have done this in the first place and I never should have taken on such a big task. No matter how many times she told me that this was a good experience, I kept thinking that I should not have had this understanding in middle school. In my eyes, middle school was a time to figure out who you are as a person, and a time to figure out what you want to do in life. Having these experiences, while I was trying to figure out who I was, was one of the hardest things, because I didn't have the confidence to trust myself, I couldn't prove to myself that I was right, after all, here were teachers who had figured out who they were and what they wanted to do in life, and some were saying that these girls were seductive. At points, I wanted to believe them, but after talking to my teacher, she helped me realize that I was right and that both people can be right in different ways.
Although Ginger and I received lots of negative comments, we had an incredible amount of support from different staff members and teachers. Without this support, we would have given up a long time ago.
All over the world females are getting treated unfairly, and a gender bias dress code is a supporting factor in this issue. If we start by changing the little things then we can achieve a world of equality. As Leslie Knope said in the show Parks and Rec, “If I seem too passionate, It’s because I care, If I come on too strong, It’s because I feel strongly, and if I push too hard, it's because things aren't moving fast enough.” Ginger and I have learned that making a change can be a long and difficult process, but trying to change the dress code is an important starting point in changing our world to become equal for all genders.
That is the end of the article I originally wrote, but I wrote that end before I had my last dress code meeting. Ginger and I attended the public SIT meeting on February 21st. We didn't present anything, we didn't say anything, all we did was observe. We listened to teachers go back and forth about how they wanted to reword our dress code policies. They finally came to the agreement of saying “Clothing must be opaque while covering undergarments and the torso (waistbands and straps excluded).” When I looked up the definition of torso, it says “The human trunk.” When I did some more research on the torso, I found that it is from your neck/collarbone to your hips. This now means that no student can wear a low cut shirt. No off the shoulder tops. No v-necks. No visible collarbone. I feel like this one rule has ruined the rest of our dress code. I worked so hard to convince teachers that a bra strap was okay to be worn. How can a student show a bra strap if they can’t show their shoulders? How can a student wear a normal shirt if they can’t show a collarbone? I am currently under the impression that I have made this dress code worse than it was at the start. After the months I spent working on this, all I did was go right back to the beginning.
Ginger and I are planning to go back to the SIT meeting and work to reword the torso policy and phrase it to become abdomen and lower back. There are many teachers who support this and will help us make our AMS dress code the best it can possibly be. I would like to thank all of the teachers and administrators who helped Ginger and I through everything, without your support we would never have made a change.
Story by Kate Buys