When my dear friend took her daughter shopping for a homecoming dress, she knew she would have to keep the dress code regulations in mind.
Delone Catholic High School has maintained the standards for a couple of years, so this wasn’t a problem for Jessica*. She told me she even brought along a measuring tape to make sure the hem was no more than two inches above her knees.
Additionally, there were no cut-outs, the dress wasn’t tight, and it provided ample coverage up top, which was already something Jessica appreciated as a mother to a teenager.
I don’t have teenage daughters, but I was a teenager once. I get that sometimes you need to have some ground rules, and moms need to oversee dress choices, especially when they are paying for them.
I definitely watch what my little girls wear, although I tell them it’s so they will be warm enough or be able to run around without showing their underwear.
And schools have a right to issue dress codes and expect they are followed, which is why Jessica was so careful to make sure her daughter did just that.
Olivia* is a good kid — she is an honor student and a star athlete — never a discipline problem, just a really great girl who I have no doubt will change the world for the better. She picked out a great dress that her mother made sure met the standards and went to the dance with her date, looking forward to celebrating their last homecoming as high school students.
The dress code is nothing new at Delone — at last year’s prom, girls submitted photos of themselves wearing their dresses ahead of time for approval, but this year, the staff informed students and parents that it would be decided at the door. Male students did not need prior approval for their clothing choices.
Yet I still can’t believe what happened when Olivia got to the dance. While her date was told to head into the dance area, Olivia was asked to go with the rest of the girls into the cafeteria, a room which has one glass wall facing the auditorium where all of the boys waited for their dates.
In order to be allowed in, the girls had to each pass an inspection conducted by one of the administrators. They were LINED UP ON A WALL, and one by one, each girl was subjected to a measuring tape and a visual up-and-down before they were either let in or made to stay put.
When it came to be her turn, Olivia’s hem was measured and rejected, in spite of the fact that her mom had made sure it would pass muster. Since they live so far from home, there was no time to run back and change, but even if she wanted to, the administration told her and the some 50 other girls that they would not be allowed to leave the cafeteria. They were not able to contact their dates and their parents were not called.
Olivia broke down in tears, totally humiliated by the entire fiasco. Some of her friends managed to scrounge up some sweat pants, others were given graduation robes, and eventually, someone lent Olivia a pair of flat shoes, and when the chaperone remeasured, her dress was magically deemed acceptable.
Knowing that I was a writer, Jessica reached out to me in hopes of spreading the word about what happened at her daughter’s homecoming dance.
As a woman, as a mother, and as a former teacher, I was absolutely horrified for Olivia and the other girls. They were inspected like cantaloupes and in a fishbowl at that, with their male classmates looking on, and made to feel cheap and dirty, as if they were less than those girls wearing longer dresses.
Being a teenage girl means being self-conscious enough, but now these people in authority were hyper-focusing on their bodies.
It’s no wonder then, that one of the fathers who was at the dance took to Facebook to make a joke about the behaviors he witnessed, hosting a public discussion questioning the parents who let their girls “dress like that,” and even calling out the homecoming queen herself. Another mother chimed in that she doesn’t understand why parents allow their daughters to “dress like streetwalkers.”
The original poster went on to say that it wouldn’t have been his daughters in trouble, because they “respect themselves too much” to ever dream of dressing like that.
The reason this conversation seems acceptable to these parents is because of policies like the school's: This father sees nothing wrong with publicly calling out minor girls for what they are wearing, all the while extolling the “virtue” of his own daughters, whom he states “have too much respect to dress like that.” That conversation is considered socially permissible because when you assign moral value to clothing, the girl in the dress is no longer a person, but merely an object.
I can’t stop thinking about what it must have felt like for these young women to be lined up and gawked at by their teachers to decide if they were “worthy” of entering the dance.
Why is it that girls are supposed to surrender their bodies for this kind of treatment, to accept that this is what it means to be a girl? Do we really want to send that message? That if a girl is wearing a short dress, she’s a slut who won’t be admitted, while the boys are helpless animals who won’t be able to control themselves at the sight of some knees?
Jessica told me that the school regrets the way in which they went about enforcing the policy, but not the policy itself. They have asked for parents to form a committee for the next dance, hoping that there is a better way to enforce the dress code.
She is worried that speaking out is going to cause trouble for Olivia, and wonders what the officials were thinking when they decided to treat her daughter and the rest of the girls like livestock.
I can’t help but think if the school had left the parenting to the actual parents, these young men and women who are on the brink of adulthood would be better served.
And if anyone ever decides to come at one of my daughters with a measuring tape like they did to Olivia, intent on measuring her worth by the length of her skirt, God help them.