How parents of girls can help with shaming dress codes: Stress they're 'not responsible' for protecting sexual response of others

·Senior Lifestyle Editor
·9 min read
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Being "dress-coded" at school can be humiliating for girls. Experts say there are ways for parents to empower their daughters to speak up. (Photo: Getty Creative)

"Kennedy's shorts are too short," the message read. "If you are able, please bring her some longer shorts or pants to put on."

I had sent my 11-year-old daughter to a theater class dressed in denim shorts and a top. It was a chilly day in our Florida town, so she'd worn an oversized sweatshirt as well.

"The view from the audience looks like she has nothing on under the sweater." 

As my phone continued to ping with messages from an employee of the school, my mind raced. If I drove over with a change of clothing to the rehearsal, how would I pull my child from practice and demand she change her pants without humiliating her?

I've always been careful about the messages I impress on my young daughter about her body. How would I explain to her that someone decided her appearance was too sexual — a distraction worthy of her needing to leave the stage? 

I didn't want to. So I responded saying a change of clothing would not be on its way.

Kennedy and I had a brief conversation at school pick-up about needing to dress differently for future practices. My inquisitive child had questions, of course, so I showed her the dress code.

"What does this mean?" she asked, referencing the misused bible verse emblazoned across the top of the paper — a verse from the book of Philippians that warned, "Each of us should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others."

I explained that some people believe girls can dress in a way that leads boys to think sexual thoughts, so they believe it's best for girls to cover up so as to not be "distracting."

These rules, ones like "when arms are lifted no belly should be showing" and "all skirts and dresses must have shorts underneath," were examples, I told her, of ways some people believe that girls' clothing can be less distracting for boys.

The humiliation of being dress-coded

Watching her face absorb this information was one of my most frustrating moments as a mom. How does a mother explain to her child how ridiculous it is for girls to have to think about how their outfits affect boys, while still teaching her to be respectful toward the adults who put shaming rules like these into place?

I'm not alone. Jen Aierstock, mom to a 15-year-old high school freshman named Madison, says on the first day of school, her daughter was "dress-coded" (a term used when kids are disciplined for their attire) for showing an inch of skin between the hem of her shirt and the beginning of her jeans. 

Aierstock says her daughter is tall with a long torso, something that made finding long shirts "a struggle" during back-to-school shopping. Still, the Pasadena, Md., mom felt confident that her daughter's outfit choice for the big day was appropriate. 

Jen Aierstock's 15-year-old daughter, Madison, was dress-coded on the first day of school for wearing a shirt that showed a bit of skin between the shirt hem and waistband of her jeans. (Photo: Jen Aierstock)
Jen Aierstock's 15-year-old daughter, Madison, was dress-coded on the first day of school for wearing a shirt that showed a bit of skin between the shirt hem and waistband of her jeans. (Photo: Jen Aierstock)

"I was getting ready to leave for work and got a call from her," Aierstock recalls. "She said, 'Mom, I got dress-coded and someone needs to bring me a sweatshirt.' I actually laughed at first — I thought she was kidding. She told me a guidance counselor approached her and said, 'We don't allow half shirts. You need to have someone bring you a sweatshirt.' Madison didn't know what to say. She was embarrassed and thought she was in trouble."

Madison's father grabbed a sweatshirt and drove to her school, where he found his daughter in tears. That evening at home, Aierstock says Madison expressed humiliation and frustration. Months later, Madison experienced a second embarrassing interaction with a teacher. 

"She was wearing a tank top under a long-sleeve button down shirt that was open," says Aierstock. "Her phone was in her pants pocket and must have pulled them down a bit to show some of the forbidden stomach. A male teacher walked up to her and said, 'Pull up your pants; we don't want to see your stomach. Just close your shirt, it's not that hard.'"

"A student shouldn't feel like a teacher is slut-shaming them for what they wear to school," Aierstock adds. "Her clothes are not inappropriate: She's a good kid, on the honor roll and never causes trouble."

Catherine Pearlman, founder of The Family Coach and author of Ignore It: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, says her own daughter, now a teenager, has endured a few embarrassing experiences involving dress codes, starting when she was in middle school.

"When my daughter was in eighth grade she was dress-coded for a pair of shorts that were not short and she was told to put on a boys' gym outfit and return to class, which was humiliating," Pearlman tells Yahoo Life. "If she wasn't distracting before, she was definitely distracting when she was pulled out of class, changed into these huge gym shorts and sent back."

Teaching girls it's not their fault

In 2017, Pearlman wrote an open letter to her daughter's principal about the incident that went viral. Pearlman says she heard from thousands of women and girls who shared their own stories of humiliation about being shamed by a dress code. Since then, Pearlman has become passionate about helping parents empower their daughters to speak up about how being dress-coded makes them feel.

"Girls are not responsible for how other people see them," says Pearlman. "This doesn't just go away. It starts in childhood, and women feel they need to perpetuate this gender identity of taking care of boys whether it's sexually or otherwise. It's really important that we don't tell girls they have to dress a certain way so boys don't get embarrassed."

"We have to teach boys and girls they are responsible for their own behavior," Pearlman adds, "and no one else makes them do anything. We're not responsible for protecting someone else's feelings, sexually."

Bryce Brewer is a former youth pastor from Post Falls, Idaho, who went viral in 2021 after he shared a public apology on Facebook, telling the girls he'd imposed strict dress codes and swimsuit regulations on during his time in ministry that he'd changed his mind.

"I am sorry that I didn't teach boys to control themselves," he wrote in the post. "I am sorry I laid the weight of purity on a girls' swimsuit while she was swimming, and not on the boys' responsibility to not be gross."

Brewer says he penned the post after he and his fiancé took her teen daughter shopping for a swimsuit that would be deemed appropriate under the dress code of a Christian summer camp. Brewer quickly realized how difficult it could be for young girls to find a swimsuit that fit their body type correctly, was modest enough to meet strict dress code requirements, and made them feel confident.

"Experience dictates a change in thinking like nothing else ever can," says Brewer. "I feel that even though my intentions were to protect both young women and young men from sexual exploration, I missed the mark."

Helping our daughters speak up

Brandy Criswell is mom to daughters ages 12 and 16, and says she's seen both of her girls shamed at church for their attire.

"When they were little I would just tell them we should follow the rules and not cause any issues," Criswell recalls. "But even when we were following the rules the girls felt out of place and embarrassed, and they were still shamed. Something was 'too tight' or if they raised their arms you could see skin."

It was Criswell's 16-year-old daughter, Paige, who first started standing up for herself.

"She did not feel like she should be held responsible for how her clothing or her body in certain clothing made someone else feel," says the York, Penn., mom. "Boys often made comments about her legs and her butt, and it made her so uncomfortable."

Brandy Criswell with her daughters, Paige, 16, and Catherine, 12. (Photo: Brandy Criswell)
Brandy Criswell with her daughters, Paige, 16, and Catherine, 12. (Photo: Brandy Criswell)

Criswell says her daughters know she will always advocate for them. She encourages them to speak their mind and also reminds them that they are beautiful and capable. Criswell also tries to model a positive body image for them.

"This whole parenting thing is just so hard — navigating these hard spaces and learning alongside your child," Criswell shares. "They are watching us. They are watching how we respond and how we handle the situation."

Pearlman says it's up to parents to teach their daughters that their bodies were not created to be sexualized, whether by a school dress code or comments from boys in the hallway.

"It feels uncomfortable to talk to our 10 and 11-year-old girls about this, but I actually think it's really important to start the conversation about how girls are sexualized and presented in media and then how they're asked to dress for school and what that's all about," Pearlman explains. "This isn't a one-and-done — it's an ongoing conversation about how we value our girls and how our bodies have nothing to do with our brains. We should help girls be able to go to school and speak up to boys and present themselves in ways that make them feel comfortable."

It's really important that we don't tell girls they have to dress a certain way so boys don't get embarrassed."Catherine Pearlman

It's also important to empower our daughters to speak up for themselves when a dress code makes them feel ashamed, notes Pearlman.

"We need to hear their voices because I don't think adults realize what these policies are doing to girls' self esteem — how humiliating the experience of being dress-coded is," she says. "Parents need to tell girls to speak up and tell their stories. That should be the first line of defense because this is adulting we're teaching our kids — you have to speak up for yourself; this is an important part of life."

Pearlman says parents should find ways to speak out as well.

"Parents have to go in and support their kids by speaking to the school board and the principal coming from a place of education: bringing in research, bringing in statistics, bringing in stories from the community," Pearlman says. "The more you tell your story, the more others tell their stories. It's about opening the dialogue and not expecting quick change but consistently working to change the policies. It takes time but do not give up."

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