In last Saturday’s New York Times, Peggy Orenstein wrote an op-ed that discussed her frustration with her daughter’s school’s dress code. Dress code enforcement usually targets the girls more than the boys and inevitably communicates unintended messages to girls about their sexuality.
Today in response to the op-ed there were a couple of letters to the editor. One of them said that the solution is school uniforms. Here it is:
To the Editor:
The answer is school uniforms. Besides leaving nothing to battle over, a school uniform solves other issues.
It reminds kids that when they go to school, they are students, not just some kids hanging out. It displays a sense of respect for the institution of school, to the teachers and to each other. It removes obvious inequalities such as designer clothes or sneakers, which cause jealousy and resentment among students. It reduces distractions of all kinds, thereby reducing the need for teachers, parents and students to get embroiled in the trivial details of whose skirt is too short and whose pants are hanging down too low.
There can never be universal agreement about this, and that’s where uniforms come in.
When I travel to other countries and see the schoolchildren so neatly dressed in their school uniforms, it makes me smile. They look like students, not some street urchins trying to attract attention for their looks and not for their brains. And in most of the countries that have the highest achieving students, the students wear uniforms.
Hampton Bays, N.Y., June 14, 2014
I’d like to make a case for school uniforms in yeshiva high school. First of all let me say that I don’t like the idea of school uniforms. I like the idea of students having as much freedom as you can give them. I like the idea of students and their parents responsibly adhering to the school’s dress code while expressing their own individuality through the fashion that they choose. Nevertheless I’ve begun to think that uniforms are the way to go. Why?
1. Students will always push back against a school’s dress code. It’s the nature of being a teenager. It doesn’t matter where on the modern orthodox yeshiva high school spectrum your school falls, it’s the same problem everywhere. Boys and girls each push back against the school’s expectations. I have no problem with that. That’s what teenagers are supposed to do. There is disparity though between boys and girls. When a staff member tells a boy to wear a collared shirt, or to tuck in his shirt, or to do whatever a school tells its boys to do, the offending boy complies sometimes begrudgingly but never feeling that a staff member is challenging his self-worth, morality or religiosity. When a staff member tells a girl that her skirt is too short or that her top is too tight or too low cut it is always interpreted as a statement about the girl’s sexuality. In the past I’ve tried to argue that it’s not about sexuality; it’s just about formality, as was argued in this blog post on the NYT website. But it’s just not true. Girls’ dress code is about sexuality. Boys’ dress code is about formality. This has to do with current fashion and the way that halacha views clothing and bodies. So no matter how sensitive, kind, respectful and loving a teacher is when instructing a girl to change her clothes, she is making a statement about the girl’s sexuality. No teacher wants to be put in that position and I don’t want to put them in that position. High school girls’ sense of body image is too personal, sensitive and explosive of an issue. The harm done enforcing a real dress code is real. And the harm in not enforcing the dress code is real too. So I’ve begun to consider the idea of a uniform as a possible solution. Again, I see the problem stemming from the girls’ position, but once proposing a uniform for one gender I’d propose it for the other too.
2. Families spend a lot of money on clothes for their high school kids. If you have uniforms the expense is reduced.
3. Kids compete with each other in the arena of fashion as almost everyone anxiously try to outdo one another. Even if they’re not trying to outdo one another, they are constantly concerned about how others in school will judge them based on their clothing. A uniform removes the anxiety.
4. Individuality should be expressed in ways that matter, like your conversation, your writing, your thoughts and the way you behave, not external things like your clothing.
When schools strictly enforce their dress code, parents and students often complain that the school is focusing on external things and missing the point by not focusing on the internal. When schools let students bend the dress code, parents and community members complain that the school is not adhering to its values. They’re both right! Can we figure out a way to have students work with their school to design a uniform that will solve the problems I outlined above while respecting a student’s self expression?