My Daughter Was Told Her Outfit Was “Inappropriate”. Here’s My Response To The Dress Code Epidemic


By Abigail Smith

As someone who frequents social media and identifies as a feminist, I have been aware of the controversy surrounding school dress codes for a while. I’ve seen posts about young women excused from prom for showing too much, well…too much of any part of their body. I’ve read several articles on the sexist construction and enforcement of dress codes in high schools, with the motivation usually being to cover up young women who, just by the nature of their being, risk distracting young boys from learning.

What I missed in my tertiary engagement with this issue over the years, is that this problem of framing girls’ bodies as a site of distraction and source of shame doesn’t begin with puberty. What I recently discovered, at the expense of my own daughter, is that the destructive dialogue between our schools and our girls begins the moment they enter kindergarten.

This recent incident forced me to think not just about the mere existence of dress codes (which make sense at the basic level of safety and functionality), but specifically about the ways we communicate with girls about school dress codes. My daughter’s story is illustrative of the undue onus we place on young girls, the moment we begin to socialize them in school, to view their bodies as ignominious and undermine their ability talk about their bodies in ways that will keep them confident and safe.

One recent afternoon, I received a call from a woman who works in the office at my daughter’s school to report that my 6 year old had been hit in the face with a ball. Upon being assured that my daughter was alright and talking to her, the phone was handed back to the woman so that she could “follow up” with me. That following-up consisted solely of an admonishment that my daughter was wearing “inappropriate” attire to school (pictured below). When I pressed the woman as to the absurdity of this charge, she shared with me that she was just the messenger and that the teacher had told her to relay the message. She could not defend her charge, but kept repeating it anyway.


What initially stoked my ire was that this conversation about my daughter’s “appropriateness” was happening as my daughter sat in ear shot attempting to recover from a ball in the face. What message are we sending little girls when we think that their culpability for “appropriateness” should be intertwined with discussions of their well-being as the victim of a specific incident? My daughter was, as was ostensibly the premise of the call, injured on the playground.

Then, as she recovered, she had to sit and listen to the accusatory side of a discussion about her perceived “appropriateness.” That anyone thought those two agenda items should be connected in the mind of a 6 year old, baffles me. As women, we constantly fight against victim blaming, self-loathing, and lack of societal value. To shift the focus from my daughter’s physical well-being to her aesthetic “appropriateness” in that moment, hijacked her status as a victim to be cared for and infused her with a sense of guilt.

This narrative, as it played out in that moment, was a replication of some of the most insidious manifestations of modern sexism. It’s reflective of the fact that we even entertain discussions of what a woman was wearing at the time she was raped, that we consider cat-calling a compliment, or that women are more concerned with their workplace attire than men and factor their appearance into their perceived (and real) success. At best, my daughter’s teacher-sanctioned admonishment was nefariously negligent. At worst, it was overtly sexist. Unfortunately, these dress codes are being pushed as standards of appropriateness nation-wide.


A large part of my concern about these dress codes is the language used to construct the overarching narrative of “appropriateness” and to discuss young girls’ bodies. In my home, and in most sexual abuse literature, we use the term “inappropriate” to identify and label behavior that truly violates appropriateness. The U.S. Department of Education uses “appropriateness” to delineate between what is and isn’t harassment and The National Center for Victims of Crimes uses “inappropriate” as a way to describe touching and contact that should be reported as sexual abuse.

I use it frequently in discussions with my two girls about what is unallowable behavior from others with respect to their bodies. I use that term to center discussions about the respect with which we must treat the bodies and the personal boundaries that respect necessitates. When 1 in every 5 of our young girls is a victim of sexual abuse, I am genuinely distraught about this distortion of the notion of “appropriateness” in the dress code narratives our public schools are pushing.

Words matter, particularly when it comes to equipping children with the lexicon to communicate situations of abuse or discomfort. We need to apply notions of appropriateness to situations that help our girls navigate a sexist, and often violent, society in ways that keep them safe, empowered, and able to talk with precision about appropriateness as it relates to their bodies. We cannot continue to frame tank tops and shorts with the same language we use to describe unhealthy touching or talk.


We cannot raise young women who think there is something wrong with their bodies because they were criticized for wearing tank tops or shorts. We cannot raise young women who think that their bodies, simply by existing, are somehow “inappropriate” until hidden; when it’s the way that we engage with girls’ bodies where the potential for true inappropriateness lies. We, and specifically our schools, need to be aware of the relationship with their own bodies that these discussions of “appropriateness” force upon young women.

In addition to appropriateness-confusion, our current dress code narrative teaches our daughters to dress according to their gender in a way that devalues girls (“You are a girl, you must cover up so as not to distract boys”). The perpetuation of this narrative makes us complicit in the unnecessary sexualization of our children.

If there is a problem with a young girl wearing a tank when it’s hot, it is a problem on behalf of the adults in the situation who are sexualizing weather-appropriate clothing in their own minds and mapping their adultness onto a child. I will not sit quietly by and let young girls be dragged into the shame and guilt that comes along with participating in the sexualization of young women that is far too prevalent in our society.

I will not sit silently and allow our girls to be labeled or admonished by adults who have arcane, inaccurate, and sexist notions of “appropriateness.” The disruption of their childhood, in this way, only fuels the problem girls face navigating their self-worth and sexuality as they grow up.


I want my daughters, and all girls, to be proud of their bodies, to see them as a source of strength and vessel for health. Inherent in this mindset, is the need to act and communicate appropriately with and about their bodies. That means always understanding that their body, is inherently “appropriate” as it was created. That means, dressing for comfort and the task at hand (which may mean a tank top or yoga pants…gasp!). That means dressing in a way that communicates that they value all the parts of themselves.

That, most importantly, means not allowing others to label their dress as implying something it does not. Tank tops, muscle shirts, shorts are only “inappropriate” in the minds of adults who are firmly ensconced in cultural hierarchies that make women overly concerned about their appearance in the first place. We need to move on from this hyper-focus on girls’ bodies as the lens through which we construct and communicate school clothing requirements.

I hope that we can at least begin to chip away at the way our schools communicate with our girls about attire. Schools should not be allowed to facilitate discussions about the “appropriateness” of any woman’s clothing in front of our children, let alone what the child is wearing. Girls should not be forced to think about their clothing and how they are presenting themselves when the focus should be some other part of their academic life.

I do sincerely ask that we all reflect upon the extreme to which we’ve allowed our schools to take these antiquated notions of “appropriateness.” Is the enforcement of arbitrary dress codes really worth the negative impact on young girls’ identity formation? Is there a way that these dress guidelines themselves could be more focused on functionality? Chiefly, how can we change to the way that communication happens with and in front of young girls to make clothing guidelines less harmful and confusing?



Abi Smith is the Assistant Director of Forensics and a Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University. She recently facilitated a club focusing on young women’s empowerment called Being a Confident Woman: Embracing Uniqueness.She is the mother of two daughters.


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