Dress code doesn't suppress expression of individuality

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2004

Juneau teens and adults are practicing that widespread decades-old intergenerational ritual: debating the high school's dress code.

Some teens are up in arms because, starting next fall, they will be forced to cover their bellies, hide their cleavage and actually keep their underwear under their clothes.

At least one element of Juneau-Douglas High School's new dress code - requiring a skirt to fall no higher than a girl's fingertips when arms are at her sides - brings back memories of life in the '70s. As a middle schooler, I listened to my high-school-aged sister complain about the fingertip rule. She'd just as soon wear a giant square on her forehead as wear a dress that embarrassingly long.

Years later, when miniskirts were ridiculously outdated, we laughed about the idea of even wanting to wear a dress that short.

The Empire has received more letters from teens this week than it has in a long time. It's been refreshing and it seems only fitting that they should staunchly defend their right to be, well, 17.

And it almost feels like some sort of unwelcome rite of passage that I find myself agreeing with advocates of more respectable dressing. If you want to trigger a mid-life crisis, try writing a column supporting a stricter dress code. I'm not sure when I've felt so decidedly middle-aged.

Even some adults are saying that kids need to have their freedom and it's foolish to try to control them this way. But perhaps these are some of the same adults who forget it's their responsibility to show kids what's appropriate.

The new dress code makes sense because high school is supposed to help teenagers prepare for the realities of working life. It's going to be a sad awakening when a young person realizes how hard it is to find a high-paying job that lets her show off her thong underwear.

One of the most repeated arguments against the new dress code is that it stifles self-expression and individuality. Young girls are upset that that they can't be individualists by wearing jeans that barely cover their rear cleavage - like a million other high schoolers across America. Dressing like a pop star and being a puppet for the fashion industry is not an expression of individuality. If a student's fashion statement were truly unique, it wouldn't have been widespread enough to catch the Juneau School Board's attention. Not to mention, it's a little sad if someone's sense of identity and self-expression comes from letting his backside hang out of his pants.

The fashion industry loves teenagers. One decade it can get them to buy pants big enough to fit three people and the next it can get them to buy skin-tight low-riders that only look good if you're anorexic. That's the irony of popular fashion: It tricks people into dressing just like everybody else, while believing that they're expressing some unique part of their inner selves.

What this dress code is really saying is, just because everybody else is dressing like this doesn't mean it's appropriate, at least not on campus. It's also saying that school is about learning, not about parading blossoming body parts.

And now that the School Board has taken away one of the easiest ways for students to flaunt their conformism, maybe they can put more energy into expressing their individuality.

• Lori Thomson is managing editor of the Juneau Empire. She can be reached at lori.thomson@juneauempire.com.

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