Do School Dress Codes End Up Body-Shaming Girls?

Four teenage girls in summer clothes standing, isolated on white.

Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

Immediately after writing a piece on how shorty shorts and form-fitting shirts are pretty much all you can find from most major mainstream brands when it comes to clothing for girls, I heard several examples of how schools are shaming girls when they wear those same clothes to school.

But if the girls are wearing the clothes that are primarily being offered to them, don’t we have a problem here?

Many think we do, including Catherine Pearlman, a mother of two who penned a tongue-in-cheek letter to her daughter’s middle school principal in a blog post for Today.com that was viewed more than 2 million times.

Pearlman said her daughter, now 13, had been told in the fall by a teacher that she couldn’t wear yoga pants because the boys would get turned on and then be embarrassed.

Then, for two days in a row, her daughter, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, was told she violated the school’s dress code for wearing shorts that were too short: They are supposed to be longer than students’ fingertips when they have their arms at their sides. She had to put on boys’ gym shorts instead and return to class.

Pearlman — a licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Family Coach, a private practice helping families resolve everyday problems including discipline, sibling rivalry and sleep — headed to her computer to vent.

“To reward you for treating my daughter with such concern, I am cordially inviting you to take my daughter shopping,” she wrote. “Now, don’t forget that you will have to find something in the stores that also meets with your dress code requirements.

“She has very long fingers which seems to make finding shorts that won’t get her sent to the principal’s office impossible. … I can tell you from experience that just heading to the mall, Target and the outlets won’t cut it. Not much for her there. I’ve already checked.”

‘Subtle messages’ being sent to girls

Pearlman never sent the letter to the principal. She took to the computer because she believes schools don’t want to be in the business of body-shaming girls but don’t realize that that’s what they are doing by enforcing what she thinks is an outdated dress code.

“As a woman, I know almost no women who like their body, who feel good about their body, almost none, but you don’t know how you got there,” Pearlman said in an interview. “But when you have a daughter, you see, I can literally see it happening, and it’s so subtle, but it’s all of these things. It’s the yoga pants. It’s the short shorts.”

In response to her post, she heard a range of comments, both supportive and critical. Among the critics were people who said that if her daughter continues to wear the shorts she was wearing, “she’s going to grow up to be a slut and a prostitute,” said Pearlman, author of “Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction.”

Though her daughter didn’t hear those kinds of comments at school, Pearlman still feels that the reprimands she received for what she wore could make her feel self-conscious about her body.

“I think there are these subtle messages that sort of carry on that we shouldn’t show something. Why shouldn’t we show something? Because something’s wrong with our body,” she said. “We need to be teaching the boys what appropriate behavior is instead of teaching the girls that they have to cover up to protect themselves from the boys.”

Pearlman’s daughter is not alone.

There have been countless examples, many shared on social media, of girls being shamed for the clothing they wear. One woman wrote about how her 9-year-old granddaughter wore a tank top on a 99-degree day and was told she was violating the school dress code.

“What happened was totally humiliating to her,” wrote Laurie Levy, a retired preschool director, in a blog post for Chicago Now. The teacher sent the girl to the school nurse, where she was told to change out of her top and wear a boy’s short-sleeved undershirt instead, according to Levy, author of “Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real: On Belonging, Loving, Evolving, Advocating, Musing, and Letting Go.”

“I’m not sure what the purpose of a dress code is for such young kids other than to make them feel ashamed of how they look or the clothing their families have purchased for them,” she said. “In middle school, however, dress codes for girls become downright discriminatory. By that age, tight yoga pants, cropped shorts, very short shorts and close fitting tank tops are, well, revealing for some girls. For the late bloomers, not so much.”

One 15-year-old girl, who we’re not naming to protect her privacy, said she was given an in-school suspension for wearing shorts that were to her mid-thigh. Her teacher suggested that her clothing was suggestive and that she was “asking for it.”

She says boys wear shorts that are shorter than hers and don’t get in trouble.

“I feel bad because it’s my body … and there’s no reason for the school to be telling me that I have to cover it up,” she said.

The message her school is sending her, she said, is that she should cover up and be ashamed. “If I show a little bit of my body, I’m considered a bad girl,” she said. “Just because I’m wearing this doesn’t mean that I want people to look at me sexually. I want to be seen as a woman. I don’t want to have to feel bad about my body.”

‘Rules are rules’

In response to concerns about school dress codes, there are plenty of people who take the “rules are the rules” approach and believe that while people might not like the rules, they still need to follow them.

“Your child’s ‘likes and dislikes’ do not supercede the rules and regulations set forth by your current school district that you reside in and pay taxes to,” one person wrote in the comments section under Pearlman’s blog post. “Sometimes we do have to wear things we aren’t wild about. I didn’t like wearing my lab coat, scrubs, goggles, but I did it.”

“I get so tired of seeing these angry parents who sent their children to school in something that they know isn’t according to the dress code. The world has rules. Your kid needs to learn how to obey them and apparently so do you,” another commenter said.

Pearlman said she is not against a dress code but believes schools are taking the concept to an extreme level. “I mean, I do understand that without any kind of parameters, some children would show up (in) inappropriate clothing, and by inappropriate, I mean boobs hanging out,” said Pearlman, who is also an associate professor of social work at Brandman University.

She says she’s a fairly strict parent and disciplinarian who teaches her kids to obey rules, but when the rules aren’t working, you need to speak up. The dress code is outdated and out of touch with the clothing that is being marketed and sold to girls, she believes.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to make (my daughter) feel uncomfortable, which is what inadvertently is happening by the dress code, and … if something is not a good policy, then you should advocate. You should speak up. I’m a social worker, too. That’s what we do.”

Pearlman’s daughter ended up writing a letter to her principal raising questions about the dress code and was told the school is following the district’s policy. She’s about to graduate and head to a high school, which doesn’t have a dress code.

As for the 15-year-old high school freshman who has faced in-school suspension for wearing shorts that were allegedly too short, she has also been reprimanded on other occasions for showing some of her stomach and for showing cleavage.

For the last few weeks of school, she’s mainly wearing jeans, because she is “just too tired to deal with getting in trouble right now.”

The day after her in-school suspension for shorts that didn’t meet code, she wore jeans and started overheating (it was 90 degrees) and had to go to the nurse’s office.

“We can’t show our shoulders. We can’t show even a little bit of our stomach. We can’t show, pretty much, our legs. We can’t show our chest, either,” she said.

She longs for a day when things will change and girls are not experiencing body-shaming for what they wear.

“They can keep a dress code that has the same rules but be more lenient toward the rules as long as what the person is wearing is acceptable,” she said. “If one kid with no boobs can get away with it, so can someone with large boobs.”

As for Levy, the grandmother and retired preschool director, she believes that if schools don’t have uniforms, they should be following common sense. A 9-year-old wearing a tank top on a hot day is not being seductive or disrespectful, she says. And a developed 13-year-old’s body should not be seen as a distraction to male classmates, she believes.

“If schools want to teach respect, they need to give the message that it is unacceptable to blame a girl for being more developed and thus too distracting for her male classmates,” she writes. “If schools want uniformity in how students look, they need uniforms, not dress codes.”