When your child brings home a form from school for you to sign, do you gloss over it, mindlessly scribble your signature, and go about your business? I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty as charged.
Jennifer Smith is different. The Indiana mom is proclaiming victory after flagging something in her son’s school permission slip she felt could ultimately prove harmful to elementary school girls — a dress code requirement for a sixth-grade pool party. The form, a picture of which Smith posted to a Facebook feminist group, included a stipulation that all girls wear non-white T-shirts over their swimsuits. No similar requirement was targeted at boys, unless you count a “No Speedos” rule.
It’s just the latest in a recent string of stories about parents or students being outraged over dress codes for female pupils. But Smith’s experience could prove encouraging for anyone disturbed by apparent gender inequality in school dress codes — Smith’s complaints brought about change within days and she didn’t even have to stage protests to make it happen.
Smith’s first move, earlier this week, was to contact the school’s principal, asking for an explanation of the rule. In her initial email to Smith, the school principal of Rhoades Elementary in Indianapolis, said that, in the past, girls had worn “very inappropriate swimsuits and covering up takes care of that issue” without forcing students to spend money on new swimsuits. She also said the rule helps prevent teasing.
“Due to the varying sizes of students at this age, [making T-shirts mandatory] takes away the ability of kiddos making fun of others for wearing a shirt [since] everyone is required to wear one,” she wrote.
But Smith fired back with academic research to justify her concerns. She wrote:
… I am not sure if you are aware of the emotional hardship that is caused by [telling] young girls their bodies are inappropriate and must be covered. According to Siegel (1999), “negative feelings about their bodies account for the higher prevalence of depressive symptomatology and lower self-esteem among girls” (p.163). As you are aware adolescence is a very confusing time and can also be detrimental to girl’s emotional wellbeing. Setting one standard for half of the student body only promotes the idea that girls bodies are naturally shameful, and helps to send a very damaging message of “you are reasonable for others thoughts, feelings, and actions” that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Smith’s proposed solution? Make everyone — boys and girls — wear T-shirts.
According to emails provided to me by Smith, neither the principal nor the superintendent were on board with that idea. Metropolitan District of Wayne Township superintendent Dr. Jeff Butts said that he supported the elementary school’s efforts “to address the concerns that have arisen from past events of this nature.”
Smith’s responded that she’d contacted the media and that school officials could expect them to be requesting comment.
By late Thursday afternoon, school officials had changed their minds. In an email to me, school district spokeswoman Mary Lang said that the new requirements were that “(a)ll student should wear appropriate swimwear” and that T-shirts are optional.
Lang said that the pool party had been a Rhoades event for many years and that Smith’s request was the first time school officials had been asked to review “long-standing dress requirements.”
Exactly why school officials decided to modify the rules were unclear. The threat of potentially unflattering media attention likely helped — Smith suspects it was the key factor — although it’s worth noting that other schools haven’t relented even after making headlines.
No matter what precipitated the decision, it’s clear that nothing would have happened had Smith not spoken up in the first place — or if she’d just mindlessly signed the slip and continued on with her day. Instead, she’s keeping in touch with school officials and plans to meet with them to discuss gender bias in schools.
“We really can make a difference,” she said, “as long as we try.”
I couldn’t agree more. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some school forms I need to double check.
Whose side are you on?
Uh oh! Please try again later.