EducationFeminism

Please Don’t Slut Shame My Preschooler

My daughter K had picked out a cute, purple twirly skirt to wear with her obligatory Frozen t-shirt to preschool.

Me: Let’s find a pair of shorts to wear, too.

K: Why? I CAN’T wear SHORTS! *audible sigh* It’s a twirly skirt! I can’t wear shorts with a twirly skirt! I won’t be able to twirl!

Me: I am sorry honey, it’s a rule.

To be specific, the dress code at my daughter’s preschool stated:

Please have your child wear shorts under their skirts.

Why? Why does a toddler or preschooler need to wear shorts under her skirt? And I have changed “their” to “her” deliberately, because this rule applies mainly to girls.

Is it for safety reasons? I can’t think of a safety concern related to visible underwear when child sits or twirls. Fewer layers actually might help potty learning or recently potty trained children avoid accidents.

10417000_10152181358998358_552364291_n (1)Too distracting for the other preschoolers? This might be the case, but in my experience preschoolers are generally a distracted bunch regardless of what their peers are wearing. And, I am pretty sure they’ve seen plenty of pairs of underwear while in a co-ed classroom that is potty learning together. Or at home. Or any time they watch prime time television or see a magazine or walk through the mall. Plus, on water day, they all wear swimsuits to play in the sprinklers/pool. How is that different than underwear?

Or my least favorite rationale – it’s not lady-like. What is “lady-like” and why should we promote this as a value? What kind messages do we send a young child when we teach them that their body is something about which they should feel ashamed? That they need to wear shorts under their twirly skirt, because showing their underwear, while sitting criss cross applesauce during circle time, is indecent or something that should make them feel embarrassed? And when a dress code only applies to girls, what kind of message does that send? That girls should be ashamed of their bodies, but not boys? Or worse, that girls are responsible for what boys might do if they dress the wrong way.

My research into dress codes reveals (pun intended) a set of policies that:

  1. reinforce archaic, religious and/or subjective views of what’s appropriate or decent, which generally relates to how much skin is showing or shape is visible on a female body,
  2. shame students, primarily girls and young women,
  3. reinforce the idea that girls are responsible for the behavior of others (you were asking for it), and
  4. reinforce the idea that boys can’t control themselves and aren’t responsible for their actions (her skirt didn’t fit, you must acquit!).

It’s sad that rape culture begins in preschool. It’s also sad that many dress codes are based on outdated and often faith-based values like modesty and chastity, while ignoring realities such as hot weather, developing bodies, lack of air conditioning, comfort of students, annoying characteristics of female clothing (e.g. most teen girls have to wear bras. As a bra wearer, I can tell you that it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that my bra straps won’t show at some point). Not to mention stifling self-expression and the ability to discover one’s identity, during a time when young people are trying different things on, while they learn who they are.

Recently a young woman was forced to wear a shame suit (a pair of red sweat pants and a neon yellow shirt with the words “Dress Code Violation” printed in large letters on the chest and leg). She was new to this school, and her skirt was deemed too short and a dress code violation. The Clay County policy reads:

Students shall be dressed so they will not present a clear danger to health and safety; should be tailored in such a manner that because of fit, design, color, texture, or inadequate coverage of the body does not create a classroom or school disruption as determined by the administration….Shorts, dresses or skirts will be 3 inches from the top of the knee; leggings may be worn under approved dress code garments only;

Can someone please explain to me how a neon yellow shirt designed to embarrass and shame a student is less disruptive to a learning environment than a skirt that shows one more inch of leg than what is allowed by an arbitrary policy? Anyone? I’ll wait. And how can it be appropriate to violate her privacy by announcing to the school that she violated the dress code?

What’s become clear is that dress codes are largely discriminatory, sexist and arbitrarily enforced. In many schools, it’s entirely up to the administration or teacher to determine what is or is not appropriate and when a student gets punished. What’s also disturbing is the dress codes that are transphobic – requiring that a student conform to the gender on their birth certificate, rather than their gender identity. And racist – requiring that a young Native American boy cut his hair and a young black girl go home because her dreads (read: black hairstyle) are “faddish” and do not comply with the dress code.

The Courts have largely upheld the right of schools to create and enforce dress code policies, as long as the purposes of doing so are clearly connected to student safety and maintaining an orderly school environment. As such, schools have been able to create and enforce policies that are clearly discriminatory, despite the fact that no large-scale studies have demonstrated a conclusive link between school dress codes or school uniforms and improved student achievement or a reduction in violence.

And when research shows that body shame can lead to issues such as low self-esteem, disordered eating and depression in girls and young women, I think we need to explore the connection between the messages we send our children when they are young and their future self-esteem, empowerment and health.

For now, I will talk with my daughter about how rules are sometimes unfair and when it might be appropriate to stand up to those in power when rules are discriminatory or violate our rights. And, I will let her wear her twirly skirt without shorts, when she’s not in school.

Suggested sound track:

Featured image: Danny Choo

Cute kid image: Steph, all rights reserved.

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Steph

Steph

Steph recently traded single parenthood to two awesome kids (3 and 7) for marriage to a great guy with two awesome kids (5 and 10). Their adventures in parenting are set in a tiny town in the middle of a corn field. Their newest edition is due in February 2017. In late 2015 she left her stressful, more than full-time job with a victim services agency to pursue writing and activism. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes and engaging in social justice warfare, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, engaging in debates on the internet, yoga, and fitness. A recovered natural parent, Steph now considers herself a semi-crunchy peaceful parent and trusts science, evidence and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist.

9 Comments

  1. September 9, 2014 at 9:26 am —

    “Why? Why does a toddler or preschooler need to wear shorts under her skirt?”
    In that particular case there might be a different, sensible reason: Dirt.
    Shorts under skirts and dresses is a family rule whenever there’s a chance that they will play in the dirt, because with just their undies, dirt gets everywhere and horribly inflamed labia was a result. (I should note that I have especially dirty kids. Seriously, they get dirty in the middle of a clean room).
    I don’t want to limit their movements, tell them “don’t play like this, don’t sit with your legs open, don’t…”, so we talked about the inflamed labia problem and how much cleaning sand out in the evening hurts, so they know the rule isn’t about shaming them, but about their health.
    Totally agree with the rest of your post.

    • September 9, 2014 at 11:56 am —

      There’s this great product called underwear that protects my daughter’s labia just fine. 😉

      • September 9, 2014 at 1:56 pm —

        You know, we have those in Europe as well. But it will only do so much when your kid is half burried in the sandbox.
        Yeah, as I said, my kids are the dirtiest ones I know, but it’s not something I made up because I want to force them into pants. It’s a rule that comes from experience. Maybe yours doesn’t play that much in every grain of dirt she can find as mine do. For mine underwear just doesn’t do the trick.

  2. September 9, 2014 at 9:43 am —

    Great post! I approach the shorts under skirts thing a little differently – it’s my rule, because I want to prempt the preschool slut shaming comments. It’s not specifically a rule at my daughter’s preschool, but I also know that skirt wearing girls are actively discouraged from engaging in “non-ladylike” behavior if they don’t have shorts on under their skirts. The one time I saw it happen to her, her little face fell and she had no idea how to process being told not to do something because of what she was wearing. So, I present it to my daughter as wearing things that empower her to run and jump and climb and tumble while still looking like Elsa without anyone telling her not to because the rules in our society is that we don’t show other people our underwear in school, regardless of gender. That said, I hate that I have to preemptively make that a family rule because otherwise, I know that my daughter’s activities will be curtailed by other adults.

    • September 9, 2014 at 11:57 am —

      I guess I am a little more fuck the patriarchy about this issue than you are, Em. 😉

  3. September 9, 2014 at 12:04 pm —

    To answer some questions that I have been asked about this post:

    What values do you want to instill in your daughter: I don’t buy that modesty is a value I need to teach my daughter (or son). I find that she, at 5, is a great barometer for logic of rules. The most important values I can teach her are believing in herself, bodily autonomy and self reliance. Part of bodily autonomy is making choices about what she wears and with the exception of basic hygiene and health care, what happens to her body. She is in the driver’s seat. I want her to learn to make good choices, not to be obedient. I am not saying there aren’t consequences…if she wears something impractical to school or the playground, she might not get to do all of the things she wants to do. She learns and makes better choices next time. I also don’t care if she gets dirty. I don’t want to teach her that arbitrary rules about the way she dresses (at 5 years old) based on religious values (that we don’t hold) are right. I don’t want her to feel shame or embarrassment about her body at 5 (or at any age).

    But what about pedophiles? I don’t believe that there is a pedophile lurking around every corner, but even if there was, I don’t believe teaching my daughter to be ladylike or wear shorts under her skirt will prevent abuse. I want her to feel empowered to make healthy choices and to trust me to help her get there. THAT is how you prevent child abuse. I don’t believe that wearing shorts under a skirt is the key to stopping child sex abuse, but perhaps teaching our kids to not be ashamed of their amazing bodies and to have control over them will.

  4. September 9, 2014 at 1:33 pm —

    There is practicality to wearing shorts. My daughter does not have to worry about her buns and upper legs. Underwear, at least the kind we get, is not all that great a durable, covering item. It is thin and smallish and if she was to sit simply wearing underwear, part of her buns would be on the surface of whatever she is sitting on. I find many of the skirts available to children just aren’t very long and do kinda leave them exposed when sitting and playing. With shorts she is free to sit at whatever, picnic table, sandbox, what have you and not be uncomfortable. She certainly would learn from natural consequences and she does about a whole host of things. On the other hand, she is away from the house and myself between six and ten hours and we err on the side of comfort and going prepared. And I don’t know if this is too much to talk about here, but I find most little ones just don’t wipe very well yet, every time when using the toilet. So shorts would add a layer of clothing to contain whatever is going on until they get in the bath. (I am not talking about BM mess that needs immediate attention, I am talking about just wiping well.)

    With all of this said, I would hope that the teacher would apply a little common sense to these social situations and go out of their way to not shame any children. I would also not pull out any rulers, after my daughter was dressed and approve her appearance in a wholly quantitative way. We try to use common sense in our approach. And if the policy is as stated for the *purpose of safety*, I would certainly hope the teacher would come to me with any safety concerns (especially at a young age) that she would have about my daughter. Any part of shaming, like that I hear about in the news, I would meet with hard scrutiny as from what I read here, dress codes are created with the intent of safety and creating a learning environment.

  5. September 10, 2014 at 1:13 pm —

    Slides? I put shorts (actually leggings usually, tights or shorts less often) on my daughters (1 and 3 years old) under their skirts because I’ve watched them try to go down a slide in a skirt. The skirt is typically bunched around their waist and their thighs stick to the slides such that they don’t move. Also sliding down poles. Also ditto the comments about the sandbox above. Also to avoid pinching sensitive skin in the carseat buckles.

    Just in general skirts, which are relatively practical for adults who don’t play on playground equipment or wear five point harnesses, and who typically take some measures to keep the skirts down around their legs, are not very practical for toddlers, who have a different lifestyle and no qualms about wearing their skirts under their armpits.

  6. September 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm —

    And I agree about the wiping issue as well, another lifestyle difference. :-/

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