School district allows students to opt out of mask policy. Mom says same policy should apply to 'misogynistic' dress code

·7-min read
A mom, who has not been publicly identified, sent an email to administrators at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn., to request that her daughter be exempted from the dress code (Photo: Getty Images)
A mom, who has not been publicly identified, sent an email to administrators at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn., to request that her daughter be exempt from the dress code. (Photo: Getty Images)

A mom in Tennessee is protesting her daughter's school's flexible mask requirement by challenging the administration's dress code. 

The mom, who has not been publicly identified, sent an email to administrators at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn., that was later shared online. Under the district's COVID-19 policy, students, teachers and staff are required to wear masks, although students can opt out of the rule if their parents fill out a form to exempt them. 

"I am writing to request the parent opt-out form to opt out of the school dress code," the mom began her email, which later went viral on Twitter. The mom called the school's dress code "misogynistic" and "detrimental to the self-esteem of women," before suggesting that "rather than shaming young women into covering their shoulders (and other parts of their body), I believe we should empower female students to have agency over their own bodies" and to make their own clothing choices.

Related video: Students in Florida start petition to change school dress code

"In light of the opt-out option related to the recently announced mask mandate, I can only assume that parents are now in a position to pick and choose the school policies to which their child should be subject," she continued. "As someone who holds a strong commitment to my feminist ideals and my desire to raise my daughter to be a strong and empowered woman able to make choices for herself, I find that the school's dress code policy does not align with my belief system. I therefore intend to opt out of this policy and send my daughter to school in spaghetti straps, leggings, cut offs and anything else she feels comfortable wearing to school."

The mom ended with: "Please make a note that she is not, under any circumstances, to be dress coded, as I have clearly communicated my decision to opt out of this policy."

Many parents applauded the mom's note on Twitter. "My daughter is wearing very appropriate black, non-see-through leggings today and her very appropriate and cute shirt does not come down long enough to cover 'the private body parts' so she’ll likely be dress-coded. It’s absolutely RIDICULOUS," one wrote. "Sick of seeing this blame on the girls for the boys reaction," another said. "If people are concerned that a girl who wears a crop top to be distracting to their boys, the problem is not the girl, it’s the way the boys were raised how to perceive girls."

While the comparison was made between mask mandates and dress codes, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life that that mask mandates are far more important. "A mask mandate is more important than a dress code because a mask mandate is about a public health crisis, about protecting your own kid and other kids, along with other adults in that classroom," she says. "A dress code is about the rules of the school, and the culture of the school — this is beyond culture."

"When we talk about dress codes or other codes of conduct in schools, we are acknowledging that we are a part of a community in schools and we accept these protocols as part of what makes these communities safe and healthy," Weingarten explains. "Masks should have a higher priority — not a lower priority — than dress codes."

Dress codes have increasingly gotten pushback from parents and students over the past few years, with hashtags like #enddresscodes, #iamnotadistraction, #mybodymybusiness and #croptopday regularly showing up on social media. "It is clear that young people have taken up this issue with passion and commitment," Shauna Pomerantz, an associate professor and girlhood studies researcher at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, tells Yahoo Life. "It has come to many people’s attention that dress codes have underlying sexist, racist and heterosexist ideologies that need to be openly discussed." 

Many school administrators and families "believe that dress codes can be a great equalizer," Sabrina Bernadel, an Equal Justice Works fellow at the National Women's Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. Meaning, if every student wears the same thing, then it's harder to tell financial differences among students. School dress codes often say that they try to instill a "professional demeanor" at school, Pomerantz says, which she calls "ridiculous."

"School are not workplaces —they are places where young people learn, socialize and experiment with their identities," she says. "Regulating students’ bodies is also another way of perpetuating white, heterosexual, middle-class values, as most dress codes conform to a certain kind of femininity and masculinity that does not take into account cultural, racial, religious, gender and sexual differences among students."

Dress codes "tend to become overly punitive and a way to police bodies — usually girls' bodies," Bernadel says. "Some can be a burden on families who may not be able to afford some aspects of dress codes that force them to go out and buy certain things," she continues. "That’s where there is a misalignment of information."

Pomerantz points out that most dress codes only target girls' clothing, including skirt length, tank top strap width and shirt length. "Parents are starting to understand that their daughters are being unfairly targeted by dress codes that sexualize girls as young as six and seven," she says. "Parents are also starting to use the language of feminism to fight back, including body shaming, fat-shaming and slut-shaming."

Organizations like the National Women's Law Center are encouraging families to push back on school dress codes. "Dress codes are often embedded with sexist and racist stereotypes, and there's a lot of data on how racist dress codes can affect girls and put them out of schools," Bernadel says. Dress codes also "promote this idea that the onus should be on girls to avoid their own sexual harassment as opposed to putting the onus on all students to respect each others' bodies," she says.

Dress codes aren't just unfair to girls, though. "Boys are unfairly treated by dress codes, too, because the focus on girls’ bodies not only assumes that girls are responsible for their own harassment, but that boys are unable to control themselves," Pomerantz says. "Dress codes are justified as protecting girls from boys, suggesting that boys are prisoners of their wild hormones. This dangerous attitude means that boys cannot be held responsible for their actions as 'boys will be boys,' but it also means that girls are just 'asking for it' if they dress a certain way. Parents are sick of hearing these dangerous things about their sons and daughters and have decided to fight back."

If you have concerns about your child's school's dress code policy, it's important to speak up, clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "Be open to communicating with your school on their policies," he says. "Can your school give a cogent rationale on why they deem it appropriate?"

Bernadel encourages parents to find other like-minded parents, form committees and ask schools to revise their dress code policies with input from families. "If there are town halls or requests from the school to give public input, definitely get engaged there and organize with other families who may be feeling the same way to put pressure on schools," she says. 

These methods have worked in some areas. "In Toronto high schools, for example, sexist and racist dress codes have been thrown out and replaced with updated versions that draw on parental and student input," Pomerantz says. "This egalitarian way of handling dress codes has also been adopted in some schools in Colorado and California."

Pomerantz urges parents to speak up. "Many administrators are not aware that their dress codes contain gendered language that makes girls uncomfortable by targeting their bodies specifically," she says. "Sometimes this awareness is all that is needed."

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