A Dress-Code Enforcer's Struggle for the Soul of the Middle-School Girl

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Junior high is a weird, often heartbreaking time for young women—and it might be just as weird and heartbreaking for their teachers.

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Eighth-graders take a class trip to Washington, D.C., during a dress-code enforcer's least favorite time: the warmer months. (AP / J. Scott Applewhite)

There's one lovely aspect to the deep, dark winter in New Hampshire: It is a reprieve from The Season of Dress Code Enforcement.

I teach middle school. And for as long as I have been a teacher, I have worried that my female students are so concerned with their newfound sex appeal that they forget to appreciate all the other gifts they offer to the world. I know it sounds petty, this interest in whether or not the girls in my classes show their legs, or shoulders, or breasts, to the world. My concerns sound like something a repressed, puritanical schoolmarm would worry about over her evening Earl Grey tea.

But when I worry about students, it tends to be the girls. They are the ones I lose sleep over. I am not just worried about inches of exposed anatomy: I am concerned for their souls, their being, and their sense of self.

I work hard to let my girls know that I respect them for their brains and character—regardless of whether they put their cleavage or the length of their legs on display. But I hate arguing about whether or not a skirt covers a girl as far down as her arms hang. I can't count the number of times a girl has complained to me that the relative length of her arms to her torso should be taken into account, that she is forced to wear long skirts because she is burdened with longer-than-usual arms. I hate having to defend my right not to see a girl's underwear. I hate having to tell a parent that yes, her daughter looked fine when she got out of the car, but her daughter rolled her shorts or skirt up once she got to school and was therefore inappropriately attired during first period. I hate having to worry that being able to see a girl's underwear will so addle the boys' brains that they will be unable to concentrate in science class.

My dress code concerns shift by hemispheres, of course, when the age group I am teaching changes. When I taught high school, my solution was simple: A box of monstrously ugly, gigantic men's T-shirts purchased at the local thrift store provided cover-up and sufficient incentive for my female students to keep their upper bodies covered. No muss, no fuss, easy enforcement. They laughed, I laughed. I was a new teacher back then, and I had not fully come to understand what troubled me about their desire to expose vast expanses of skin.

But middle school? Middle school is a whole other can of worms. Sixth graders are mere children, while eighth graders are burgeoning adults; their minds and bodies change more rapidly than they realize. During these chaotic middle years, they evolve from carefree kids to body-obsessed teenagers almost overnight. One day they can't pay attention in class because they're thinking about ponies and their pet guinea pigs, and the next they're incapacitated by daydreams about the opposite sex.

Their bodies, as well as their brains, are awash in those very hormones that make my job of dress-code enforcement a living hell. I don't blame them completely—it does happen fast. Dresses that fit up top six weeks ago might not cover burgeoning cleavage today, and skirts that skimmed the knee last month might not hide their underpants during this morning's math class. Their favorite dresses go from charming to indecent in a blink of an eye.

Perhaps Susan Sarandon said it best in the film version of Little Women (even if she was not quoting Louisa May Alcott's original Marmee). Meg has just returned from Sally Moffat's coming-out party, for which she was dressed, made-up, and corseted by the other girls. Laurie is horrified by her cleavage and her drinking, and Meg is embarrassed by her behavior and motivations.

Marmee consoles her with the words I yearn to say to my female students, particularly the girls who are just beginning to understand the power of their physicality:

Meg: It was nice to be praised and admired. I couldn't help it.
Marmee: Of course not. I only care what you think of yourself. If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that's all you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it can not diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind. Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you.

I've had students who never heard this message. Some hated themselves and loathed their bodies; they wanted to shrink down and disappear from notice. Others plucked out their eyebrows and stopped eating. Years after she was my student, one made it out of law school before she lost her battle with depression in a motel room in North Carolina.

What's most upsetting about my short time with these lost girls is that they were some of my favorite students; they were girls I knew could change the world if they would only give themselves a fighting chance to do so. Today, I wish my students could see what I cherish in them. They are not the measure of their hemlines, but the sum of their strong minds, kind hearts, and unlimited potential.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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