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

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.

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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 website, and 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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