A recent story involving Boston Latin School recently caught my attention. First, I attended Latin School in Chicago, which like its Boston cousin is an elite private school. Second, the story confirmed my rising concern over the trend in elementary and high schools to instill a hyper-sensitive culture. At issue is something that many of us experienced in our childhood: dress codes. The students of Latin Boston however, have risen up in disgust over such dress codes as sexist attacks on women and even a cause for a rape culture.
The school bans such things as gang-related colors and symbols, sexually explicit logos, hemlines higher than four inches above the knee, and shirt-shoulder straps narrower than the width of three fingers. It also prohibits leggings worn as pants (as opposed to under a skirt or dress). First, as a graduate of Latin Chicago, I cannot imagine an active gang at these expensive schools beyond an insider trading alliance. Second, I have no idea what a legging used as pants actually means or why shirt straps must be three fingers wide. However, dress codes are part of life in education, schools, and various social institutions. I do not always agree with them, particularly when they contravene free speech. These restrictions do not raise content-based concerns. Yet, the students denounced the standards as reaffirming that “we still live in a patriarchal society where men can decide whether a female’s clothing is appropriate or inappropriate.” They further argue that such dress codes create “a sense of shame towards girls bodies” and reinforces the notion that “yes, it is our fault when girls get raped because they should have covered up and avoided the situation by dressing in a way that does not attract another person.”
These minor limitations hardly seem burka-like rules for covering up girls. Boys appear restricted as well under the rules. What concerns me is not the details of the limitations. Indeed, the students may have perfectly good arguments to make on the silliness of some limitations that should be considered. However, it seems more and more common for such rules to be quickly elevated to some attack on a gender or race or cultural identity. These rules have fairly straight-forward purposes. First, many school impose actual uniforms to remove clothing controversies and embarrassments, particularly for students whose families cannot afford to keep up with new styles. Second, non-uniform rules like Latin’s are designed to avoid dress styles that are not conducive to learning. In co-ed learning environments, clothing can become a distraction for students. Finally, these codes teach students that in the real world you are expected to dress appropriately for given environments.
The Latin students may have a case for arguing that these rules are reflective of a stodgy environmental but a sexist environment demands a bit more than a simple dress code.
What do you think?