Showing skin

Students at HSLI doing henna.

In a diverse high school like ours, students’ clothing can fall at two ends of the spectrum: revealing, or very conservative. Students from Dominican Republic might see a crop top as normal school wear, while a student from Yemen might see a female’s bare arms or hair as taboo. It’s an interesting balance. 

Where do I stand with it? 

Part of me doesn’t want to think much about it. When I founded our school in 2011, our students wore a uniform, but  enforcing it became too much of a full-time job. Instead of saying, “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?” I wanted to just say, “Hi!” Parents and kids said they wanted the uniform but so few wore it that we abandoned it. Now, students can mostly wear what they want. 

And yet–there is a part of me that is not so open-minded about clothing. I still have a judgmental church busybody in me that disapproves of revealing outfits. It’s in the air. Every year in May as the weather warms up, a staff member, always female, comes up to me and says in a low voice, “You need to talk to your girls about appropriate dress” and then looks pointedly at a student in a short skirt or tank top. There is a double-disapproval in the comment: one, against the girl, and the other, against me for not doing something about it.

Then I feel a pressure to start regulating what’s appropriate. Should I visit every class and tell them what not to wear? Arms and shoulders OK but cleavage no? Huh? How would I possibly say that in a room full of boys and girls?

Attitudes about dress code have been changing, though, and this year in June, something big shifted. No one came up to me for the low-voice appropriate clothing conversation. The NYC Department of Education came up with new, modern guidelines: Dress code “1. Must be implemented equally and in a non-discriminatory manner. 2. Must not prohibit ‘distracting’ clothing or certain types of clothing that is stereotypically associated with one gender (e.g., only prohibiting miniskirts or camisole tank tops which are predominantly worn by students who identify as female).”   

I was surprised by how I felt when I read that: relieved. Free. Released from a set of expectations of how I should be as an educator and a principal. There will always be wildly different standards for clothing; our students adapt to the differences more than we give them credit for. Reading those guidelines, my job suddenly got easier. 

My internal church-lady busybody can rest now.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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