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School dress codes can be outdated. But what are we fighting to allow?

It’s hard not to applaud young women flexing their activist muscles and questioning society’s outdated notions. But are we sending the wrong message to our daughters?

adobe stock images; globe staff photo illustration

Shaming girls over what they wear to school is nothing new. When my 80-year-old mother was a schoolgirl in the Bronx, a female teacher yanked her from the recess line and sent her home to change for wearing socks that didn’t appropriately cover her ankles. My mortified mother is still angry about it, some 65 years later.

But today’s savvy teen girls who get “dress coded” — sent home for a violation of the dreaded policy — are more likely to take their indignation to social media, Instagramming images of clothing that landed them in the principal’s office and creating Twitter hashtags like #IAmMoreThanADistraction to call out rules they say are “sexist,” “slut shaming,” and enforcing a double standard. Why should girls, they demand, be held responsible for how boys — and, unfortunately, male teachers who feel uncomfortable — respond to their bodies?

It’s hard not to applaud these young women flexing their activist muscles and questioning society’s outdated notions. But I can’t help but wonder if we mothers, who often co-champion these crusades, are inadvertently sending the wrong message to our daughters. Are we really encouraging them to fight the right fight?

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When a Cambridge middle school girl was reprimanded in 2016 because her shorts broke the infamous “fingertip rule,” three fellow sixth-graders, with parental support, organized a spontaneous protest, wearing handmade T-shirts asking, “Why are you looking at my legs?” (As parents of tweens with gangly limbs have found, it’s often challenging to meet the demand that shorts travel far enough down the thigh beyond the tips of one’s fingers.) The head of school backed down in a conciliatory letter that blamed an overzealous staff member, admired the scholars’ advocacy, and stated “that specifics regarding girls’ clothing are not a part of [school] policy regarding appropriate dress.”

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But is the end game to achieve equality by wearing the skimpiest clothes? Reflexively fighting against all dress code violations brushes aside the reality that there is a time and place for appropriate clothing. Schools often hand down hard lessons to shape future adult behavior — hand in a late assignment and face the consequences, just as you will someday in the workplace. So what’s wrong with teaching the lesson that how you present yourself will count in your career? Are our teens gaining the wisdom to make smart sartorial decisions on their own, when they will soon be judged by college professors and job recruiters? Plus, how will we mothers pull out the old chestnut “You can’t go out of the house wearing that!” after we’ve labeled our now 16-year-old’s right to dress how she pleases a feminist cause?

True, charges of a double standard in the school dress codes are often accurate. Boys get away with garments (think: sleeveless sport jerseys) that expose a fair amount of skin, while the width of a girl’s tank top straps is doled out in allowable inches. And it seems that girls who are more developed often bear the brunt of punishment, while less curvaceous girls fly under the radar. Horror stories of such extreme shamings abound nationwide. A Florida girl who didn’t wear a bra to school because of a painful sunburn was forced by administrators to place Band-Aids over her nipples. Another 15-year-old Floridian was forced to wear a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants stamped “DRESS CODE VIOLATION” because her skirt was too short.

Still, the reality is that administrators are walking a fine line. Clothes worn by each gender often fail to have an exact parallel. Anatomy and fashion trends dictate distinctions. To one eighth-grade boy I queried, the dress code controversy was a non-issue. To him, female classmates wearing athletic shorts or tight yoga pants seem routine, far from the distraction we overwrought adults sometimes make them out to be. Sadly, some dress code interventions are done with good intentions, yet are now being universally attacked as damaging to girls’ self-esteem. At an Indiana elementary school, a permission form to a school-sponsored pool party told sixth-grade girls to wear T-shirts over their bathing suits. The principal explained this was necessitated by the “varying sizes of students at this age,” and that it “takes away the ability of kiddos making fun of others.” I imagine girls of all body types might have appreciated this option for discretion; I know I would have in my pubescent days. But one crusading mother (of a male student) protested on their behalf that the T-shirt requirement was “body shaming” these girls, and it was swiftly abandoned.

The idea of administrators exacting specific rules and whipping out tape measures feels icky and outdated; yet leaving the guidelines vague and up to one’s own discretion leaves teens who push the envelope at the mercy of arbitrary enforcers. Ideally, codes should be universally applied — a ban on visible private parts or requiring undergarments seems like a sensible, and gender neutral, standard, for instance. But at the same time, we must acknowledge common-sense differences among anatomy and fashion and take into account the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of the community. And we can all firmly agree no teen should ever be shamed on the spot. A discreet note sent home to parents should be the default.

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Finally, the fight to wear something revealing seems misguided when research continually shows the negative consequences. In a 2018 Journal of Social Psychology article, Regan A. R. Gurung, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, reported that students of both genders were less interested in “interacting” with girls wearing sexually suggestive messages on a T-shirt than with those wearing shirts bearing a Nike swoosh or a “nerdy” science joke. And his previous study found that females who dress “provocatively” in the workplace — even as innocuously as a blouse button undone — are judged significantly less competent and intelligent than their peers.

I don’t want girls to be judged this way. Neither does Gurung, who notes that while dressing modestly “might help an individual avoid negative impacts of stereotypes in a single instance, it is certainly not likely to eliminate stereotypes or sexism more broadly.” So how do we bypass the fight over what to wear, and instead work on changing those perceptions? By setting dress codes, school administrators are only tackling half the issue, Gurung suggests. “The better way to encourage society not to link what a female wears to her competence or intelligence,” he says, “is to remind people to examine their perceptions and stereotypes on a regular basis.”

That’s a code we can all get behind.

Melissa Schorr is a Globe Magazine contributing editor and coauthor of “Shame Nation.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.