Neutral Dress Codes at Schools Foster Positive Gender Expression

Historically, the ways that many of us look at personal expression, whether at home or in school, have been gendered, meaning there have been different expectations for boys and for girls (which is a binary way to look at gender). This means a few things. One, all students are not treated equally. Two, all students are limited by how they are allowed to express themselves. Three, these ‘rules’ ignore the fact that students may be non-binary (which means they identify other than wholly as a boy or a girl) or they may be intersex (having variations of sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies).

“As students grow, they want to express themselves in different ways,” said Director of Jeffco Safe Schools Coalition, Tracy Selph. “When options are limited, students aren’t allowed to be themselves and are forced to conform to the image others (read: adults) want them to have. Dressing outside of a limiting, gendered dress code singles out students as different, and they are frequently disciplined.”

To foster positive gender expression in schools, Selph said it’s critical that gender-neutral dress codes are established so that students can express themselves in the way that they choose, whether it’s clothing, hair color or style, makeup, etc. It’s also important to recognize that dress codes also can be exclusively based on race, faith, culture, and economy in addition to gender. Who was at the table when the dress code was created? Were youth a part of the process? Although it’s challenging, it is possible for schools to develop appropriate dress codes that are all-inclusive.

“Establishing neutral dress codes is possible and is already being done in some Jeffco Schools,” added Selph. “These guidelines allow for freedom of expression and empower our youth so that any student can style themselves the way they choose and dismiss those gender stereotypes that prevent youth from being themselves.”

Ways in Which Students Face Gender Stereotypes

Students want to feel included and a part of the conversation which means, schools that use inclusive language will help everyone feel included. When addressing the adults, don’t just say ‘welcome, parents’. Instead, try ‘welcome parents and caregivers’. In addition, a teacher who says, “boys and girls, please sit down,” is not including non-binary or intersex students. There are other ways to say the same thing such as:

“Students, please sit down.”

“Fifth graders, please sit down.”

“Future Leaders, please sit down.”

There is now a better representation of gender and sexual identities in the media. Catalogs, campaigns, television shows, movies, and literature are all featuring voices and experiences of a more diverse group of people — it’s important for educators to do the same in their classrooms.

One way to do this is to honor people’s preferred names and their pronouns. This is a new concept for many folks.

“Youth are more aware of diversity with gender identity and expression than adults, who usually need to unlearn that ‘they’ can be used to refer to a single person,” said Selph. “Language is changing all the time. It’s okay to mess up, but don’t ever misgender someone on purpose — that would be cruel. When someone makes a mistake with personal pronouns, they should simply give a quick heartfelt apology (“my apologies, I meant…“) for an honest mistake and move on.”

How Can Parents and Caregivers Help?

To help promote inclusivity, parents and caregivers can support children in their creative expression in a positive manner whether at home or at school. 

“If a school dress code is oppressive, then those concerns should be addressed directly with administration, the PTA, and other parent/youth-focused groups,” added Selph. “Many schools work to be a welcoming and safe place for all students so, with greater awareness about our increasingly diverse population, it’s critical to establish ways to create a more positive school culture and learning environment.”

Positive affirmation for students wearing what makes them comfortable means everyone can be treated equally and encourages others to respect their peoples’ choices.

“No matter what the situation, kids want to feel loved, safe, seen, heard, and included,” said Selph. “They want unconditional love and as they struggle over their appearance, they want to make sure parents are listening and accepting them for who they are.”

Ways in Which Schools Are Making a Difference

The Jeffco Safe Schools Coalition provides resources for youth, families, and educators to cultivate a safe and inclusive environment. The district shares social, educational, and advocacy opportunities for the community through monthly meetings, newsletters, and resource sharing. It participates in all manner of local and state events supporting youth and families in schools as well as offering training for educators, businesses, and community partners.

“What I’ve learned is that it’s crucial that we extend our respect for others by not commenting on clothing or bodies or hairstyles, etc,” added Selph. “Students have their own filters influenced by social media that create impossible standards of appearance. Constant comments on dress and expression create intense anxiety in youth and affect the LGBTQ+ population in many ways.”

Selph also added that students do not want to be convinced or coerced to be something they are not. Inclusivity enhances resiliency and confidence in oneself. By providing positive support and gender-neutral dress codes, students can achieve what’s necessary to grow and thrive throughout their school lives and into their futures.

For information and resources about gender inclusion in schools, visit Jeffco Safe Schools Coalition.

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