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Let’s talk about how kids dress

When it comes to dress codes, there's a lot to unpack.Adobe stock/vectorfusionart - stock.adobe.co

Here at Parenting Unfiltered, I try to reflect what parents are worrying about right now. Believe it or not, these topics are not always easy to unpack in 1,000 or so words.

Uniformly — pun intended — parents have questions about clothes: Where to buy them, how to locate boys’ pants that won’t immediately turn to dust, where to find girls’ clothes that don’t say “Daddy’s Little Flirt” in fake diamonds. Who’s designing this stuff, anyway? (More on that later.)

Then I read a thread on the Facebook page for my 12-year-old son’s school. A girl had been “dress-coded,” or disciplined, for wearing a top that showed her belly. The parent wanted to know: Did public schools unfairly target and embarrass girls? Did dress codes, by their very nature, fall too heavily on girls — especially curvier or more mature ones?


On Tuesday, the US Government Accountability Office released a report analyzing nationwide school dress codes, illustrating their many pitfalls.

“While school districts often cite safety as the reason for having a dress code, many dress codes include elements that may make the school environment less equitable and safe for students. For example, an estimated 60 percent of dress codes have rules involving measuring students’ bodies and clothing — which may involve adults touching students,” they wrote.

Plus, they found that districts more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls than those worn by boys. Moreover, “Most dress codes also contain rules about students’ hair, hairstyles, and head coverings, which may disproportionately impact Black students and those of certain religions and cultures, according to researchers and district officials,” with disciplinary repercussions.

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On the Globe’s parenting Facebook group, clothes were also a hot topic: One parent wondered how “clothing for girls goes from being too saccharine as a toddler to too sexy as a tween.” Another asked when to “draw the line at things that you think are inappropriately sexualizing girls at too young an age … How did 10 or 11 become the time for this?”


In the interest of (non-sartorial) transparency: I have two boys, one of whom is still in Carter’s sweatpants and another who wears a banana Halloween costume to school. But, in reporting this piece, I heard from so many families — some of whom requested to be unnamed due to unpopular or sensitive opinions — about the nature of kids’ clothes, mainly girls’ clothing, and the complicated issues they reflect: about bodily autonomy and the very nature of sexuality and gender during a vulnerable stage when kids are exploring their identities, testing limits, and wrestling with self-image.

So I’m going to tackle this story in a few parts. We’ll start with logistics. Where do you shop? Options are scanty, in every sense of the word, and girl parents seem to have it worse.

“I don’t remember having such limited choices when I was shopping for clothes as a tween and a teen. If you want to look age-appropriate, you’re basically boxed into buying the belly shirts or skimpier things unless you pick things that are meant for a much younger audience. It’s the tight shirts, the belly shirts, it’s the short-shorts,” says Weston’s Gillian Fachner, whose daughter helped lead an initiative at her school, modifying the dress code to be more inclusive of girls’ fashion.


Rochester’s Kelly Medeiros, frustrated with shopping for her 11-year-old-daughter, is more blunt.

“It was nearly impossible to find appropriate but stylish clothes this year. Everything, even at Target, was crop-tops that were just below the chest line or had cut-outs. We tried Old Navy, a bunch of places in the mall, et cetera. It was impossible to find shirts that met her standards without ‘unicorns and rainbows’ that my daughter declared childish,” she says, saying that her daughter ultimately decided to dress like a “potato sack” because other options were too revealing.

But that’s just the beginning. We’ll also tackle dress codes and their validity. What’s appropriate for school versus home? Should more schools institute uniforms, or would this be divisive, too? Some parents believe that school should be treated like a business setting, with modest clothing.

“Kids need to understand that there is appropriate dress for different settings and circumstances. Would you wear a crop top to church? Or a wedding? Or to work?” said one parent, who requested to remain anonymous, stating that it would take “brass balls” to publicly say such a thing.

But what about self-expression? And does clothing regulation inherently target girls more acutely than boys?

“I [find] the act of dress-coding elementary-school-aged girls for showing bellies or shoulders absolutely disgusting. Medford’s school committee did recently alter the dress code policy to allow kids to dress freely, as long as private parts are covered and their clothing isn’t openly offensive. Part of what makes some kids look differently in these trendy clothes comes down to their comfort with their developing bodies, and kids, especially girls, should not be shamed for that,” says Medford’s Jennifer Flynn.


And, finally, we’ll talk about double standards and the nature of gender-based fashion marketing for young kids. Acton’s Patsy Bandes, for instance, now shops for her athletic 10-year-old daughter in the boys’ section out of desperation.

“My daughter is very rough and tumble, on her bike and her scooter. She wants things that cover her body the same way. I have to buy things that are labeled as ‘boys’ — and I put that in quotes — to be able to get things that are not teeny-tiny and that don’t have her underpants showing,” she says. “Clothes in the girls’ section are just mini versions of adult clothes, whereas clothes in the boys’ section are clothes designed for kids.”

Bandes also points out that there’s a larger, and far more problematic, question: Why are clothes divided by binary gender? Why don’t more durable, gender-neutral clothes exist, especially for young children?

“Until puberty, bodies are all kind of the same shape. I think the way forward is to find sustainable companies that are looking to meet this demand because I think the mass market clothing is — and here’s my soap box — mostly designed by men and mostly designed as mini versions of adult clothing and really starts to model the female body as a sexualized object. I try to find those companies that really work against that, and there’s a privilege in being able to do that,” she says.


She likes Princess Awesome and Boy Wonder, a Washington, D.C.-based e-retailer devoted to anti-stereotype clothing, with gender-inclusive motifs like science, math, mix tapes, and pianos. (There is also a “Nerdy Adult” section, which I’ll be browsing shortly.)

So: Stay tuned for more. And, as ever, I’d love your thoughts. Where do you shop? What frustrates you about the experience? How does the kids’ clothing industry need to change? How does your school handle dress codes or uniforms? I promise I’ll work hard to do the topic justice.

Have something you want to say on the topic? E-mail me at kara.baskin@globe.com.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.