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Dress Code Distress

Every school year, we are bombarded with stories (often from south of the border) of girls being sent home from school for showing their legsor shoulders, or even their collar bones.

More and more, young women and their parents are pushing back against this pressure from schools. School dress codes target girls unfairly, they claim, and force young women to miss instructional time so they don't 'distract' their male counterparts (or, more disturbingly, the male staff.) At the same time, many parents are uncomfortable with sending their teens to school in stiletto heels and tiny skirts. 

How do you balance your desire to be a progressive and egalitarian parent with your desire to make sure that your teen is being seen for who she is, not what she wears? 

1. Focus on helping your teen choose clothing that will be comfortable and practical (and safe in cold weather!) She may like her short skirt, but sitting in a desk in it all day is probably a lot less glamorous than she thought it would be. Similarly, shivering in -10C at the bus stop without a proper coat or boots is downright unsafe.  

2. Help your teen understand that different kinds of clothing are appropriate for different situations. Show her that you wear different clothing depending on what you're doing. One wouldn't wear PJs to a business meeting; wearing a dress appropriate for a nightclub looks pretty silly in band class. You might decide to let her get an outfit she likes, but agree that it's suitable for the weekend and not for school. 

3. Be prepared to explain your reasoning when you say "no." As you well know, there comes a certain age when that answer just isn't good enough. Focus on comfort, practicality, and versatility - using terms like "not age-appropriate" or "too revealing" are likely to have the opposite of the intended effect. 

4. Try to establish what it is about her clothes that she likes or dislikes. Is there a way she can capture the same aesthetic while making sure she is comfortable at school? 

5. It is never okay for your child to be made to feel that they are a sexual 'distraction' to others due to the clothes they are wearing. Your child has every right to be present in the classroom and learning, regardless of her clothing. If your child is cat-called or shamed by others - students or staff! - she should feel comfortable bringing that concern to you and to the school's administration team. No girl, regardless of the way she presents herself, deserves to be harassed.

6. Teens have been pushing the dress code for generations; understand that the way your teen dresses today is all about exploring her tastes and self-image. Focus on messages of resisting peer pressure, avoiding "quick fashion" consumerism, and being comfortable with who you are. These messages are important, and will help her make future decisions better than simply reacting negatively to shocking clothing due to a perceived moral failure. 

7. If you and your teen both feel that the dress code is unfair, inappropriate, or causing excessive disruption to instructional time for multiple girls in the school, consider contacting the administrative team, superintendent, or school board trustee. If your own dress code battles at home are constant and un-winnable, consider one of the many schools in Calgary which have implemented mandatory uniforms as a way to encourage a level playing field. 

Allie is a writer, educator, and Calgary's Child Magazine's Web & Social Media Manager. 

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