Tag Archives: student government

Feminist Dress Code

During the course of the summer, as a frequent Twitter user, I read innumerable posts on girls and women, what they wear, what it means, and what it ought to mean. A number of websites specifically questioned school dress codes, claiming they were belittling to girls – and, for that matter, boys – in the assumptions underlying restrictions on clothing for girls. Those assumptions might include the motivations of girls for making certain choices, the reactions of boys to those choices, and where the responsibility lies in that interplay. Culture plays a role in those assumptions, of course, but in general the majority of people in our society tend to associate revealing clothing with deliberate sexualization, assume that boys will be distracted in those cases, and ascribe responsibility to girls for their original clothing choices.

There’s no question that the sexualization of young girls is a legitimate issue in our society. For one thing, society in general and the media in particular (see Teen Vogue for example) relentlessly focus teenage girls on how they look, to the point that (as we discussed in the 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class) girls often, horrifyingly, envision themselves not from within but rather from a third-person perspective. At no point should girls buy into or otherwise accept being objectified.

That said, there are at least three potential problems with judging clothing based on the perceived degree of sexualization. One is that it makes an assumption about the intent of the wearer that may or not be true. Another is that it ascribes the right to judge girls’ and women’s bodies to people other than themselves. A third is the difficulty in finding a way to encourage girls not to objectify themselves without stigmatizing them in the process.

Making the assumption that boys would be distracted by what girls are wearing also carries a number of problems. First, of course, is the underlying heteronormative assumption. Not all boys are attracted to girls, and not only boys are attracted to girls. Secondly, there’s the assumption that people are initially attracted to other people by their appearance; for some people, attraction is based more on personality and less on looks. Thirdly, there’s the underlying assumption that people are necessarily attracted to other people; asexual people may not be a large percentage of the population, but they do exist. And fourthly, there’s the untenable assumption that boys would be unable to properly set their priorities.

Even if there are boys who are distracted by what girls are wearing, the argument that it is then incumbent on the girls to wear something different is completely missing the point. It is the exact equivalent of blaming the victim. As Katie J. M. Baker succinctly put it at Jezebel (standard warning of strong images and language to those who follow any Jezebel link), “teaching teenagers that girls shouldn’t wear certain clothes if they don’t want to distract or tempt boys is just like telling women to avoid dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be raped.”

So we know some assumptions a school dress code should not be making. Yet, as some of the middle school students have said down through the years whenever our school’s dress code comes up in discussion, the school is essentially their workplace. Some sort of dress code, most of them agree, makes sense. But what form should it then take?

The students who have talked to me about their ideals generally use words like “neat” and “respectful.” That seems to make sense, and you see these principles reflected in the opening statement to our dress code, written by a student-faculty committee: “In general, students are expected to take pride in their appearance and be dressed for the academic day (7:55 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.) in appropriate attire that fits properly and shows a modesty befitting the class day.” So far, so good. The trick is agreeing on what it means to take pride in your appearance and what it means to be dressed for the academic day.

Over the seven years since we installed this dress code, the four main bones of contention have been: height of heels, graphics on t-shirts, hoods, and the exact width of straps on tops or dresses (the current standard is three fingers). When we next revise the dress code, which may be this year as it came up in the first Student Council discussion, the people who make up that committee will need to deal with these kinds of questions, among others:

      At what point in time does a heel become so high it is medically unhealthy to wear a particular pair of shoes, and is that the appropriate standard for our school to set?


      Can and should we agree on what graphics would be considered appropriate if we were to once again allow them on t-shirts?


      Could and would it work to allow hoods as long as they are not pulled up during the academic day?


      How do we best balance the need for comfort in extremely hot and humid weather with the concept of “modesty befitting the class day”?


    And what about the concept of “modesty” in general?

More deeply, we need to look at how we support students in making clothing choices that balance the need to express their authentic selves with an awareness of how they are perceived without either shaming them or inadvertently reinforcing society’s and the media’s tendency to judge and to overly focus girls and women on their appearance. With careful thought and consideration, then, we should be able to come up with what might be called a feminist dress code.

That is, we should be able to do so if indeed the concepts of “feminist” and “dress code” can even co-exist, as a member of the “Toward the Stars” community pointed out this summer on Facebook.

No dress code will fully satisfy all members of any given community, of course – including the absence of a dress code. But coming to grips with the notion of a feminist dress code? That would be an achievement worth striving for.

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Getting Past Partisanship

When I walked in to the Faculty Meeting room on the first Thursday after Winter Break, I noticed two of the middle school students hovering uncertainly and as inconspicuously as possible in a corner of the room. They were the Student Council Representatives, ready to make their presentation to the faculty on why 7th graders should henceforth be granted the right to vote for Student Council President (a right which all other currently enrolled students already had). I went up to them and asked how they were doing; they held out several pieces of paper with scribbled and periodically crossed-out notes alternating in pen and pencil and asked if I could look through what they planned to say. Curious as to what they had chosen to emphasize from the conversation we had had in MOCA (middle school student government) after Student Council had given preliminary approval to their proposal, I glanced through their notes for them and (maybe crossing my fingers a little bit on a couple of points) told them it was fine. They relaxed for a second and then asked me – implored me, really – if I would give their proposal support when the faculty discussed it. I smiled and told them they already knew where I stood on the issue.

The students were first on the agenda and, though clearly nervous, spoke well. There were a few questions from the faculty including at least one which they had not anticipated (nor had I). Their responses were, for the most part, clear and cogent, and even the one time they were clearly improvising as they went along, their initial soft-spoken meandering gradually gained focus and volume and finished strongly. After the students received applause and left, the faculty discussed the proposal. A number of people were commenting on the maturity and poise the students had shown, and Jeremy Deason, our Athletic Director, leaned over to me and whispered, “Every single day. If they visited the middle school, this is what they would see every single day.”

Today in housemeeting, the Student Council President called up both the current and the past middle school representatives to Student Council for a special announcement. Though they knew the content of the announcement, three of the four middle schoolers kept straight faces; the fourth would periodically notice she was smiling again, shake her head, shuffle her feet, look down and re-compose her face in studied neutrality. Meanwhile, the StuCo President described briefly what MOCA’s proposal had been and what had been necessary to get it approved. With a warm smile and to supportive applause, she congratulated them on having succeeded in winning the 7th graders the right to vote for all future StuCo Presidents.

We first created MOCA when the current Student Council President was in 7th grade. Originally, it was conceived to run in parallel with StuCo, which would continue to serve the Upper School while MOCA served the middle school. As they felt (correctly) that many of StuCo’s decisions affected the entire school, over time the middle schoolers successively argued for and won the right of 8th graders to vote for StuCo President and the right to have representatives attend StuCo meetings. But the right of franchise for 7th graders proved to be a three-year struggle. One major stumbling block was a number of upper schoolers who had moved up from the middle school and who felt that current middle schoolers should have no more privileges than they had had.  Among this group, at one stage in the process, was the StuCo President herself.

This made it extra meaningful that she was so inclusive in her announcement, calling up in front of the school not just the current MOCA representatives to StuCo who made the final, successful push but also the fall representatives who had originated the proposal and taken it through the early stages. Her warm and genuine smile offered to the middle schoolers and her graciousness in praising the middle school and identifying the decision as an important one in the life of the school went a long way toward both building bridges and healing any scars that may have possibly remained from earlier, often intense discussions.

With political partisanship so much on our minds these days, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, one can’t help but wish that many adult politicians and political pundits could have observed, and learned from, this young woman.

Once the applause died down, she went on to point out that this was a good example of how Student Council could take student ideas and work with them to make them happen, encouraging all students present to share their own ideas and help StuCo work to improve their school.

Little does she know that another group of middle schoolers has already been hard at work discussing possible changes to the dress code!

-Bill Ivey, Dean of the Middle School

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Filed under School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

An Act of Hospitality

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.
– Parker Palmer, quoted in Ken Bernstein’s blog entry “More thoughts on teachers, teaching and students.”
MOCA, the middle school student government, is currently working on four major projects through subcommittees. One group is brainstorming ideas for new traditions for the middle school, focusing especially on winter term as the Middle School Overnight and Founders’ Day are major events that occur in the fall and spring terms. One group is structuring a proposal to locate an all-boys school with which we might create a brother-sister school relationship, much as we had with Deerfield Academy until they went coed in 1989. One group is working on ideas to share with Student Council on the currently hot topic of whether or not 7th graders will gain the right to vote in this spring’s election for Student Council President. The fourth group is working on a proposal to alter the current dress code.

In reading over the minutes of the most recent Student Council meeting, I was struck by several statements made by various upper schoolers. Some spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group, while others focused on Student Council as a group making decisions and judgments that affect the whole school. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group were more likely to oppose it to MOCA, feeling that if 7th graders were allowed to vote for StuCo President, they would essentially be represented in two forums and that this would be unfair. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily all-school group were more likely to support 7th graders voting for StuCo President, reasoning that StuCo decisions affected them as well and so why shouldn’t they have a say?

Underscoring many comments made by some of the former middle schoolers was their own frustration at not having been allowed to participate in Student Council at all when they were younger (this right was won by the 2008-2009 MOCA students who succeeded in getting a proposal for middle school representation on Student Council passed by StuCo leaders). If these former middle schoolers focused on their frustration at having had to wait, they tended to oppose 7th graders getting the right to vote. If they focused on what they would have liked to have had, they tended to support 7th graders getting the right to vote.

These concepts were not explicitly stated in the minutes of the latest Student Council meeting, but they were there nonetheless, lurking behind almost every opinion that was expressed. I believed that the middle school students working on the issue needed to understand them if they were to make any headway in promoting their beliefs. So as MOCA broke up into groups, I followed this subcommittee’s members into the other classroom to talk with them.

As I was wrapping up my comments, a member of the dress code subcommittee came to the doorway and gave me an imploring gaze, so I finished what I had to say as quickly as possible and zipped into the next room. It developed that the group had split into two incompatible points of view, one that advocated requesting the school adopt a uniform, the other that advocated loosening the current rules. The uniform group had a slight majority, and was pressing their numerical advantage; assumptions and overgeneralizations were flying all over the place. I worked to help them all calm down and learn to back away from statements like “Everyone thinks…” or “We all want…” or “There’s no point in doing this because they will just…” As time ran out, I wrapped up by pointing out to them that they had unwittingly exposed an important underlying question about the dress code: how do we reconcile the range of opinions on how to balance the desire to express one’s individuality with the desire to express one’s belonging to a community? I told them there was no one right answer to this question, and that all their points of view were valid. I acknowledged they had some tough work ahead of them, suggesting that in the end, it was better this question got exposed and talked through as opposed to lying, unnoticed and unnamed, beneath all the discussions they were having.

Both groups, it would appear, have a hard road ahead of them. When one works to elevate and honor student voice, such moments are inevitable. If seen as learning opportunities, they can be incredibly productive. Conflict can be positive if handled well. Middle schoolers, who tend to be uniquely obsessed with fairness just when they are discovering the nature and power of their own voices and starting to define their own values as distinct from important adults in their lives, are well positioned to learn how to do so.

Later on in Mr. Bernstein’s blog entry, he quotes Mr. Palmer as saying, “Students are marginalized people in our society.” You don’t have to spend much time following the current debate on educational reform to affirm the truth of that statement. When one couples that truth with the historic marginalization of women, the fundamental importance of the work we do in the school to honor, respect and develop girls’ voices is greatly magnified. It is by no means easy work. But at the same time, it can be overwhelmingly rewarding.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School