Girls Are Not a Distraction

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Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

At the start of the school year, Maria-Vittoria “Giugi” Carminati, a mother of four children, was handed a dress code from Laredo Middle School in the Cherry Creek School District. The dress code talked about minimizing a “distracting environment,” and described rules about the length of skirts, dresses, and shorts. It also prohibited students wearing spaghetti straps. On reading the dress code, it was immediately clear to Carminati that while this dress code was intended for all students, it was largely applicable only to girls. After her ten year old son returned home from an orientation at the school which included a discussion of the dress code, and said: “"Mom, you're right. It's all about the girls!" she knew she had to act. Her son had walked away with the clear message that girls must watch what they wear but boys do not have to. And so, Carminati wrote a letter to the superintendent, principal, and school board outlining her concerns.

A National Issue

Dress codes in schools are gaining greater attention as parents and families become aware of their gendered and body shaming effects; Los Angeles, Evanston, IL, Portland, OR. Hollister, CA, South Carolina, Kentucky and the list goes on. The hashtag #Iamnotadistraction has become a rallying cry against codes disproportionately affecting and restricting girl’s clothing choices.

A school’s dress code is often explicitly or implicitly aimed at constraining the way girls dress. While these codes are presented as being applicable to all students, they largely apply to girls because of the types of outfits banned or regulated. Rules created in the name of a “distraction free environment” dovetail with the foundational narratives of rape culture: what girls wear invites boys’ attention and directly contributes to girls own victimization.

The message Carminati’s son and the many other children at his school received from their dress code orientation session was clear: it is the responsibility of girls to dress more modestly to prevent boys from being distracted. It communicates to boys their sexual desire is uncontrollable and they don’t ultimately have responsibility for their own actions (her dress made me do it!). It also sends an implicit message about the value of education for boys and girls. When girls are found to be in violation of their school’s dress code, they are often sent home, relaying the message a boy’s education is more valuable than a girl’s. In schools across the country, body shaming girls is an appropriate practice to allow boys to learn distraction free.

A Need for Urgency

The letter Carminati sent to the school board and other stakeholders stated: “As dress codes usually do, your dress code teaches girls that their bodies are sexual and that their sexual bodies are distracting to boys. You teach them that the thoughts that the boys are having are the result of [the girls’] bodies. You teach them that the actions that boys have in response to those bodies are the girls' fault and that the way to avoid the distraction and inappropriateness of those thoughts and actions is for the girls to cover up. . . . That is incorrect.”

Carminati received a lukewarm reply from Laredo Middle School. While they didn’t refuse to address the issue outright, they simply said they were working on it.

“This is urgent” she tells me. “It must be changed, now.” It’s been about six weeks since Carminati sent her letter and received the initial unenthusiastic response. She has heard nothing since and plans to step up her advocacy by contacting the school’s Title IX coordinator; the person designated to address sex discrimination in education.

The Broadview’s follow up with the Cherry Creek School District resulted in a more encouraging outcome. According to Abbe Smith, Director of Communications for Cherry Creek Schools, the district has “begun the process of reviewing district and school-level dress code policies to ensure the language is fair, gender neutral, and non-discriminatory.”

Colorado Statutes require all public schools to create and comply with a “school safety plan” including “A dress code policy that prohibits students from wearing apparel that is deemed disruptive to the classroom environment or to the maintenance of a safe and orderly school.”

I tried unsuccessfully to find Laredo’s dress code on the school’s website, but I did find a model dress code created by Oregon’s chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). The model dress code asserts each student is responsible for his or her own level of distraction and body shaming has no place in a school. Schools across the country are slowing adopting this model policy, but progress is slow.

Carminati hopes more parents and moms will stand up for girls and consider how official policies communicate issues of value and power to children. The louder the voices expressing concern over dress codes and their disproportionate affect on girls, the greater the likelihood these policies will change.