I'm sure that the teachers and administrators who run my daughter's public middle school had the best intentions as they set the dress code. But here's the thing: the middle school dress code is the first very visible communication to my daughter and her female peers that they are on notice. From here forward, their appearances will be scrutinized forever. Their choices about what to wear will be a key factor in how they are judged by society. For many years to come, their appearance will be the first and perhaps most important factor in the way their romantic and professional lives develop.
Ostensibly the dress code applies equally to girls and boys, but I'm going to posit a guess that not many sixth grade boys lose sleep over how they won't wear offensive graphic t-shirts and sag their pants. In fact, it was Coach T (my husband) who brought the dress code's inherent sexism to my attention.
Here are the rules (with my own gender attributions):
Shirts: Straps and sleeves must cover undergarments. (Girls)
No spaghetti straps, halter tops, racer backs, cut outs, or short tops. (Girls)
No inappropriate logos, advertisements, or similar graphics. (Boys and Girls)
Shorts/Skirts: Must be mid-thigh. (Girls)
Pants: No holes or cuts above mid-thigh. (Girls)
No sagging. (Boys)
No leggings. (Girls)
In the final tally, girls have 6 rules to follow while boys have only 2.
When we lived in India, one of the first things my daughter's 18-year-old nanny taught her was how to tie a scarf to cover her head. When we returned from India after seven months, it took my daughter a few months to reacclimate herself to American fashion. She needed convincing and reassurance that in the US shorts weren't immodest (!) for an eight-year old girl to wear in public.
I don't support regulating the way women dress at any age. From the corset to the burqa, dress codes have historically been just another way to hold women in. It seems particularly insensitive to press these rules upon girls on the verge of puberty, just as they are defining their identities. Until my daughter saw the dress code (and heard about them from older siblings of friends, other mothers, etc), she never gave a second thought to wearing tank tops, shorts, skirts, and leggings. In short, she was comfortable in her own skin (and clothing), and I think her friends were too.
I have no doubt that there are reasons these dress regulations are in place. I'm sure they protect my daughter in ways I haven't considered. Further, I admit that women's fashion is more varied than men's, and that may explain why girls have more rules than boys. But the notion that the dress code protects girls from themselves or others is paternalistic and sexist.
If middle-school girls are old enough to require the protection of a dress code, they are also old enough to understand the message it conveys: that a woman's body is dangerous and requires concealment. Is this a lesson we want our girls to learn in middle school or ever?