Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

What I Teach My Teenage Daughter In Response To Her School’s Sexist Dress Code

Before my 14 year old daughter left for school this morning she came out of her room and asked, “Do you think I’ll get dress coded for this?”

My response to her was far different than I had once imagined it would be. I remember the old me saying things like, “If I have a daughter, she’ll never go out of the house wearing ____” (insert whatever I thought was immodest at the time).

But that’s not how I see things today as the actual– no longer theoretical– parent of a teenage girl.

Now, she has never been “dress coded” at school, because the clothing she chooses for herself is pretty ordinary. However, in these frequent discussions when she worries about it (or tells me about other kids– always girls– who got dress coded), I use it as an opportunity to have an important discussion with her. Here’s where I steer things:

I tell her that if she’s wearing clothes her mom and I bought for her, there’s no reason she can’t wear them to school or anywhere else.

She’s 14 and obviously doesn’t have a job– which means if she has clothes, we bought them. And if we bought them, there’s no reason why she can’t wear them to school– even if some administrator disagrees with our family’s decisions. We are completely capable as a family to make our own decisions on clothing, we don’t need the school to help. If we wanted help from the school, we would have sent her to one of those private schools where they do stuff like that.

Thus, I encourage her to keep on whatever she’s wearing (if she wants), even if she’s worried about an administrator giving her a hard time.

I teach her that other people don’t get to dictate anything about her body– that she is in complete control over her self expression and has her own bodily autonomy as a human being.

The *worst* thing I could teach my daughter is that men, or societal forces, somehow have a power or say regarding her self-expression or body. This would be a message that could throw her into a host of oppressive and abusive situations as an adult, so I make sure we have that conversation right now. She is the complete and total owner of her own body. She can dress it however she wants, and draw boundaries that she is in total control of (aka, if someone at church wants to hug you, you can totally say “no thanks”).

If I were to encourage her to passively accept the dress code, I’d be encouraging her to accept the reality that others have control over her body.

I tell her that she isn’t responsible making sure the boys don’t “get distracted.”

I teach my daughter that when she goes to school, it’s her job to work her hardest learning English, learning to read, and giving her best effort to everything she does. That’s what she’s responsible for.

What she’s not responsible for is making sure all the boys are actually doing their jobs. She’s not responsible for their attention span, she’s not responsible for where they point their eyes, and she’s certainly not responsible for whatever thoughts 14 year old boys think about during the school day.

I teach her that her body is a beautiful creation of God, and that she should love it. But I also teach her that her body is not some hyper sexualized kryptonite where having her bra strap accidentally stick out, or where a bare shoulder is going to render all the males in her world completely helpless and incapable of behaving appropriately.

Seriously– if your son can’t finish his math assignment because my daughter has her shoulder showing, the “talk” that needs to occur is with your son, not my daughter.

I teach her that her school’s dress code is part of the oppression of sexism and patriarchy, and that she should resist it.

My daughter has been raised in an egalitarian home with strong female role models, so when she experiences sexism, she naturally finds it revolting and unnatural all on her own. I use these dress code conversations to point out how sexism and patriarchy are both ingrained in our culture, and teach her how to notice and identify it when it comes up. Regarding the dress code, she was able to notice all on her own that it’s really only the girls who have their bodies policed, and that this felt wrong to her.

Once she’s able to identify things like this, I teach her the importance of tearing down any social structure that oppresses people. This gives way to a bigger discussion on other forms of cultural oppression– discussions I really cherish having with her.

I tell her that I would be her #1 supporter in defying patriarchy. 

She is being raised in a pacifist home, but that doesn’t mean we teach passivity or compliance with oppression. While we teach the principles of being respectful towards those in authority and being loving towards even our enemies, I make sure to not confuse this with teaching her blind compliance with authority.

Instead, I encourage her to take control over her clothing choices and self expression– and I make sure she knows that if she ever gets dress coded, I’d put up the biggest, most spectacular fight her school has ever seen. (And this always invites a “look” that is split between feeling supported while also saying, “Dad, do NOT embarrass me.”)

Private schools can do whatever they like, because we have the total freedom to not go there. But public schools? I don’t need my local public school telling me how to parent, or telling my daughter that her body is some hyper sexualized object that will throw the school into total chaos if she happens to have too much of her 7th grade shoulder or leg showing.

And so, when she’s worried about getting in trouble at school, I use that as an opportunity to have a much bigger discussion.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  • While I agree with the motivations expressed in your reasons, I think you ignored the other side of the issue and thereby reached conclusions that are extreme.

    Within the cultural systems we have, the game of revealing flesh to attract attention is a well-developed female “strategy”. As a result, society is likely to push back. Personally I suspect most women would appreciate an end to Hollywood-based fashion aimed at showing cleavage, for example. It sets up a ridiculous kind of competition, and girls need much more help working out how to resist that without giving up self-esteem than they need help resisting patriarchal dress codes.

    You stated that if her parents approved the clothes, they are okay. That is probably true, but note the omission. Parents have developed some judgment about how much “revealing” is a good idea. By saying, “leave that up to us,” you are suppressing discussion about the issues that are already facing her. What is the purpose of a dress code? How might it go to extremes, one way or the other? How can an autonomous individual take on the choices involved without ceding their autonomy to social rules and competitions? Sorry, but arguing that you as the adults who love her can be trusted while the institutions of society cannot is pretty much a cop-out. The matter is more complex.

    I would note in passing that I am astonished at all the assertions that the dress of boys is not an issue. In 15 years of teaching, I was confronted with at least as many violations by boys, mainly involving wearing jeans that drooped too low so their boxers would show. If that phenomenon has passed from the scene it is cause for rejoicing, but somehow I doubt it.

  • Good job, “dad.” As the parent of a girl on the autism spectrum, I struggled with these issues when she was in high school. On the one hand, she needed to learn what the social norms were (since that is not something autistic kids pick up on their own), and on the other hand, well, I’m a free-spirited bra-burner. We had many discussions about the fact that bras were socially expected, even if the expectation was unreasonable in our opinion. Fortunately, she was able to understand the distinction. She chose to wear socially acceptable clothing–bra and all–just to avoid having to deal with the extra stresser of unwanted attention. Now that she is in college, she bases her decisions about clothing on what she wants to wear, not on the expectations of society. And so far, no one at either college she has attended has found her attire to be so disruptive that official intervention was necessary!

  • The private school where I went from seventh grade until graduating from high school had a fairly sensible dress code. About the only thing girls couldn’t wear was spaghetti-strap tops or tank tops by themselves- you could wear them, you just had to throw a shirt over them. And the only T-shirts allowed were solid-color and/or single-pocket tees, or ones with school or clothing brand names on them. NOBODY could wear short shorts- shorts were only allowed on designated “shorts days” and they had to be the longer ones, at least mid-thigh length. Guys couldn’t wear anything tacky, either.

    Basically, the attitude came down to, “dress like you’re going to a job.” Though I griped about it at the time, when I got out into the work world, I understood what “business casual” was- it was basically how we dressed in high school.

  • Let me address, Mr. Corey, what you tell your daughter:

    “I tell her that if she’s wearing clothes her mom and I bought for her, there’s no reason she can’t wear them to school or anywhere else.”

    There may very well be a reason that she can’t wear them to school: They may be in violation of the rules.

    “I teach her that other people don’t get to dictate anything about her body– that she is in complete control over her self expression and has her own bodily autonomy as a human being.”

    As members of society we give up some rights in order to secure the benefits of living in society. If you want to be in society you must follow society’s rules, or make sure that society doesn’t know you are breaking them. You may not like them. (There are some rules I don’t like either.) But you must follow the rules or pay the consequences.

    “I tell her that she isn’t responsible making sure the boys don’t ‘get distracted.’”

    She is not responsible. But the school, as an agent of society, may take that responsibility on itself. You may not agree with society’s choices and decisions, but unless you can make society change you must abide or face the consequences.

    I note in passing that some of society’s more irrational rules seem to be there simply to show who is abiding by the rules. These are often the rules of public conduct. Including dress codes.

    “I teach her that her school’s dress code is part of the oppression of sexism and patriarchy, and that she should resist it.”

    You may believe that. It may even be true. But if you teach her that she may indeed resist or violate the dress code, you, and she, should be prepared to pay the price for such resistance. She may, for instance be expelled from school or even arrested, and you might be declared an unfit parent. Whether you like it or not, society can do those things.

    “I tell her that I would be her #1 supporter in defying patriarchy.”

    So you, her father, would be her #1 supporter if she resisted your own “patriarchal” authority? Or do you deny that you have and ought to exercise any authority over your daughter? Your authority over your daughter is granted or mandated by society, and to abdicate such authority may cause society to terminate your parental “rights”. Society will, in other words, substitute society’s authority for your own. You might find this annoying, but that is just how it is.

    I think, Mr. Corey, that you are simply spouting, without rational consideration, what is “politically correct” in your small segment of society, but not acceptable to society as a whole. You describe with your “teaching”, some cloud-cuckoo land, and not the real society we live in. It is my opinion, that in teaching your daughter such nonsense, you are doing her a disservice, but as long as we have freedom of religion, you can, of course, teach her any nonsense you please. But, sooner or later, she must learn to live in the real world or she will face unpleasant consequences. That is one of the things I think you should be teaching her.

  • Thank you for this. Coming of age at a Southern Baptist church in a conservative public high school in the South, I was obsessed with the modesty of what I wore. For religious reasons at church, but also because my mom tied moral judgment and shame to “immodest” choices I dared try, and I have always been extremely sensitive and a people-pleaser.

    Consequently, while it was considered okay for my middle-school English teacher to slam the backs of girls’ lower legs with his heavy, cubed meter stick in the spring when we wore shorts and then laugh maniacally–in a move unrelated to dress code, that hit the part of legs approved for exposure–it was NOT okay for shirts to come shorter than fingertip-length. As a short-torsoed, long-limbed individual, this was torture. I spent the rare days I wore shorts to school terrified of being caught and forced to change, not only because I hated breaking rules, but because this one was tied to modesty–something my church and mom said determined my worth.

    Shame was all I knew when it came to dress, and my family wasn’t even fundamentalist!

    I mention the teacher who hit us because it reflects the “good ol’ boys” culture of my Southern school. They could do whatever they wanted, while girls were subjected to extraneous regulations and gender norms.

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