Friday, June 5, 2015

The Dress Code Affair

The Dress Code Affair
Every fall when students return to school there is a brief period where they must learn the rules for the new school year.  Often these rules are spelled out in a handbook that is given to students on the first day and then the highlights are glossed over by the teachers that are trying to get through the first day rituals and requirements.  All of these handbooks typically have a dress code policy.  Yet, every spring, as the weather begins to warm, the trending stories on social media and “news” websites focuses on horrible dress code violation stories.  As a former high school teacher who often enforced the dress code, much to the dismay of my students and some parents; and as a Speech and Communications teacher I feel like the internet is letting this debate get out of control and way off point. 
So, let me break this down for students, parents, teachers and administrators to hopefully help mitigate future issues that are wholly unnecessary.
Section 1: The Written Policy
If the school has a written dress code policy that is given to parents and students at the start of the year, this is the rule that is expected to be followed; Period.
-          The faculty and staff of the institution are responsible for enforcing this rule, and yes there is the reality that not everyone will be caught.  Just like when we speed as we are driving, we may not all get caught but when we do- still have to face the consequences.
-          If someone chooses to make the conscious choice to violate this rule; because yes, when you put on that inappropriate t-shirt, or outfit that doesn’t fit the dress code you know it; then one must accept the consequences of that choice. If you make decisions in life to violate a rule, then you must accept that there are possible consequences of breaking that rule. This is true in all areas of life.
Section 2: The Process of the Consequence
When authoritative figures are enforcing a rule it is important to consider how comments are phrased, but they are humans and sometimes misspeak.
-          When an authoritative figure is enforcing any rule violation they need to carefully phrase comments and explanations.  Often times, policies have been in place long before the people enforcing them have begun working there. It is important to know “why” the rule exists.
-          In the course of explaining discipline decisions, the focus should be the following:
o   The Policy or rule as it is written- did the violator know about this rule
o   That this policy/rule was not met and these are the consequences.
-          That is it.  No explanation or reasoning is needed beyond this.  Most of the stories that appear become huge media circuses because of comments that went beyond these two simple things and waded into the “why” which was clearly not understood. So, continue reading if you also don’t know why.
Section 3: Why dress codes exist
Dress codes exist for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with health, safety, and equality. Additionally, they exists in schools to also prepare you for expectations found in workplaces.
-          Much to the dismay of many, there are real reason to have dress codes that do not have to do with body shaming or rampant teenage hormones. 
-          Health and Safety: Clothing is a barrier to the elements we encounter in this world.  We adjust our clothing to protect our bodies.  Although the focus may be on fashion during our youthful years, eventually it is soon learned that staying healthy may trump “looking cute”.  Many schools have heating/cooling systems that are unpredictable and clothing is the front line of dealing with those vast temperature changes. Certain classes may require students to work with machinery that requires protective clothing minimums.  As for the bare legs issue- often wood seats become cracked and splintered; plastic chairs often have loose screws and cracks as well. The length of pants, shorts, dresses, skirts is designed to make sure that your body is protected from these factors.
-          Equality: Good rules and policies are designed to allow an equality in their enforcement.  Now, the reality is that dress codes are always going to have some gender disparity simply because they are different.  However, if a boy were to wear a dress to school, they would be expected to follow the same rules as girls. 
o   “The Finger Tip Rule”: here is the big secret that shockingly many who must enforce dress codes do not know. The fingertip rule exists because it is an equal measurement across the board!  No matter what height, build or body type you are, there will be approximately 6” of space between you fingertip and knee cap when you stand in a natural body position with hands at your sides.  Don’t believe me- test it. Grab your friends, break out a ruler and see for yourself.
-          Workplace:  Often we forget that school is, in essence, a training ground for your future professional lives.  From the age of 5 till 18 (traditionally) school is your job.  You are learning lessons that are not found in books like attendance, showing up on time, communicating with peers and superiors appropriately, and how to meet expectations.  These lessons are just as important as the material you are expected to learn.  Although social expectations change, there will still always be workplace specific expectations.  You will be expected to dress in a manner that is appropriate for the specific workplace setting of the profession you enter.  In school a violation is met with minor consequences compared to violations in a workplace which may be met with being fired and losing your income.

Section 4: It shouldn’t matter what I wear
Regardless of what we want to believe, or want the world to be like; the truth is we all know that what we wear communicates to others and does matter.
-          In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter what we wear- but then we would all most likely wear the exact same thing with no variation, because it wouldn’t matter.
-          The truth is we all know that it matters- every single one of us.  If it didn’t then we wouldn’t spend time thinking about the “perfect” outfit for the first day of school/ work. Brides wouldn’t spend hours searching for a wedding dress. T-shirts would never be made or bought that shout what we like, what groups we belong to, or where we went on vacation.
-          Even when someone says “I don’t care what I wear” they actually do, because they are trying to communicate that they do not care about what is fashionable, trendy, or cool which is also a message.
-          What we wear communicates a lot of things to the world around us but at the very minimum it communicates these three distinctive things.
o   Our interest, preferences, hobbies, and inclinations
o   How we feel about others, the occasion/ event, or the situation we are in
o   How we feel about ourselves

So there it is. The things I wish everyone knew about dress codes, and so I am putting it out there into the world.  I hope that if you are a student, a parent or in education you now understand how to navigate this tricky realm without putting down, body shaming, or missing the point of the rule.  When I was a teacher, I too misspoke and ended up hurting a student’s feelings which I never intended to do.  However, it does become frustrating when you are portrayed as the “bad guy” for doing your job.  No one wants to be a bad guy, but good teachers know that rules have to be enforced or there is no point to having the rule at all, which is a slippery slope.
Additionally, if you come across one of these hyped up media stories about dress code horrors- remember the two following things:
                1.) If the students violated a written policy that they were aware of; that was their choice and they must face the consequences of that choice.
                2.) If the authoritative figure made some kind of inappropriate commentary in the course of enforcing the policy, then that is not good- but it is an entirely separate issue that does not detract from the original violation.  
While these things are connected, neither cancels or supersedes the other.  The second one should be dealt with by the authoritative figures above them (their bosses) and ideally that would involve some conflict communication and phrasing education.

Just my two cents, feel free to disagree because that is the spice of life.