Leggings are not pants

It’s summer, so I just read yet another article online wringing its hands about dress codes as applied to girls’ dress. These articles come out every damn year, and I have something to say about them.

A few weeks ago my daughter was getting dressed for school, when I looked at her and sighed deeply before saying, “Are you really done getting dressed? You know that I don’t allow you to wear leggings to school.” We have few rules about dress in our house, but what we have is motivated by my belief that children should look appropriate. This translates to meaning that leggings are not pants. If you choose to wear leggings, then you wear something like a skirt or dress over them. (Or shorts, which is a look that also fits the letter of the law in this case.)

La Neige responded by pulling her tshirt down as far as she could and saying, “But I thought my butt was covered by my tshirt?”

I looked at her and thought, she doesn’t look terrible. Actually, she looks fine. The leggings were not super-tight, and she can probably get away with wearing leggings and an oversized tshirt. But then I remembered that this was not about looking good or attractive, it was about looking appropriate for school, so I laughed at her attempt to pull her tshirt over her butt and said, “Could you put a skirt on over that? Then you won’t be wearing leggings as pants.”

So there’s the key, it’s about looking appropriate for school. Yes, I’m a bit of a dinosaur who clutches her pearls and says, “Kids should dress appropriately for school!” True, I was one of the last people on earth to accept that it was okay to wear black or white to a wedding, and it came as a shock in the ’90s when people started wearing jeans to work. I was a teacher back in the day when all girls’ tshirts were too short to cover their belly buttons, and I found this strange. The other side says that if it is a distraction for girls to display their belly buttons in school, then it is the fault of those who are looking, not of the belly buttons.

This may be true, but I still want to believe that there is such a thing as dressing appropriately for school, and that school is a place where you go to learn and to speak out with words and not where you go to be looked at. My daughter complains about having a dinosaur for a mother, but I think it is a relief for her to know that there is zero pressure on her to look attractive for school.

A few years ago my kids’ school council was debating the school dress code, and some of the mothers pointed out that it’s hard to find girls clothes that meet the dress code. Girls shorts are short and summer dresses and tops usually have spaghetti straps. Yeah, so retailers make money off of selling clothes with less fabric for girls. Duh. I mean, my daughter’s shorts might be made of less than half the fabric of some of my son’s, even though he is 3 years younger.

Being a brilliant – if ashamed – consumer, I snap up longer shorts when I can find them and occasionally buy boys’ shorts for her. Disclosing this caused one mother to say with disdain, “My daughter would never go for that.” If I remember correctly, this was the same mother who argued that the school should not be enforcing any dress code because the parents’ judgement is paramount: I would not let my daughter go to school looking like that.

In this moment, I realized that this mother and I were speaking two different languages. I wanted a dress code that supported my desire to help all children look appropriate for school. She seemed to want a dress code that supported her goal of having her daughter look attractive for school.

I don’t speak that language, and I don’t know how to. All I know is, I want a dress code that supports all kids in looking appropriate. To me, appropriate means that underwear is not visible in school, and kids wear clothes in which they can play on the playground, participate in gym class, sit with limbs akimbo in class, and generally move comfortably, all day long. Also, leggings are not pants.

[Edited to add: The more I think about it, the more I realize that my thinking about girls and how they present themselves at school is influenced by Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex: Navigating the New Landscape, which I enthusiastically recommend. An interview with the author is available here.]