The Apparently Immoral Shoulders of My Five-Year-Old Daughter

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, the patriarchy is still going strong for the foreseeable future. How about an ice cream cone?"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, the patriarchy is still going strong for the foreseeable future. How about an ice cream cone?"
Photos by Jef Rouner

Last Monday morning was a little colder than I expected, so I made sure that there was a warm change of clothes in my daughter's backpack in case she wanted to change. She'd had her heart set on wearing her rainbow sun dress since the weather warmed up so I finally acquiesced and let her. Still it wasn't too surprising to me to see her walk out of school that afternoon with her T-shirt on over the dress and her jeans on under it.

"Did you get cold, sweetheart?" I asked her.

"No," she said a little crestfallen. "I had to change because spaghetti straps are against the rules."

I'm not surprised to see the dress code shaming come into my house. I have after all been sadly waiting for it since the ultrasound tech said, "It's a girl." I didn't think, though that it would make an appearance when she was five years old.

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Five. You get me? She's five. Cut her hair and put her next to a boy with no shirt on and she is fundamentally identical. I guess you could argue that a boy would not be allowed to wear a shirt with spaghetti straps either, but the day they sell anything like that in the boys section of a Target I will happily withdraw my objections.

Have you ever stopped to think how weird a school dress code really is? I went and checked out the one for my daughter's school district and it's amazing in how hard it tries not to say what it actually means. There are literally no male-specific guidelines anywhere on that list. I mean prohibitions against exposing the chest or torso could hypothetically apply to boys except that they don't. Not really. They don't sell boys clothes that do that. There's nothing that is marketed to boys that is in anyway comparable to a skirt or a sun dress. Essentially, a school dress code exists to prevent girls from displaying too much of their bodies because reasons.

I didn't pick up my daughter's dress at My First Stripperwear. It's not repurposed fetish gear from a store for very short people. It's a dress from a mall chain store in her size. It covers everything but her shoulders and a small section of her upper chest and back. She's worn it to church, and in the growing heat she was looking forward to wearing it a lot because it's light and comfortable.

You know what really grills my cheese about it? It's not even the shirt they made her put on over her top, it's the pants they made her wear underneath. It's a full-length dress that she has to hold up to keep from getting wet in uncut grass. She even had a small set of shorts underneath because it was gym day. But because the top part of her dress apparently exposed the immoral sinfulness of her bare shoulders she also had to pull on jeans even though her legs remained completely covered as part of her punishment.

This is still going in 2015. It really is. We still live in a country where someone can decide the shoulders of, and I can't stress this enough, a five-year-old girl are so distracting that they must be sent away and decently hidden. God knows what could possibly happen to her if not.

I'm not so old that I've forgotten being a teenager and rolling my eyes at adults who went on and on about the "slutty" dress of my female classmates. I didn't have the term "rape culture" back then but I understand it now. The continued fascination of people that a girl with too much skin showing, or who develops breasts early or any number of other things is somehow opening the door to everything from commentary about her purity to outright assault is in no danger of going away.

But I swear to God and all his Alf pogs I really didn't think that I would have to face that particular dragon before she even entered a numbered grade. Now I have this child, the one that argues scientific points about everything from the top speed of land animals in Africa to the classification of the planets with me endlessly, wordlessly accepting that a dress with spaghetti straps, something sold in every Walmart in America right now, is somehow bad. Wrong. Naughty. And most importantly that the answer is to cover up.

Make no mistake; every school dress code that is not a set uniform is about policing girls and girls alone. The only time I've ever seen it go the other way around was when I was fighting the battle for my long hair throughout middle and high school. That was last century, but I had a friend go through the same thing with Needville ISD less than a decade ago with her son. And why? Because long hair belongs on girls. There's literally no other possible reason to force a boy to cut his hair if he doesn't want to.

Part of me very much wants to go buy a nice dress for myself and drop her off at school in it for the rest of the year to prove a point. In the meantime I think I'll employ the greatest weapon a five-year-old possesses; the question "Why?" The next time the kid wants to wear her dress I'm going to let her, and I'm going to tell her that there's nothing wrong with it or her because she is dressed in a perfectly normal manner and cute as a button to boot. I'm going to tell her that some people think a girl who shows too much skin is wrong or dangerous, but that those people are, for want of a better term, lackwitted thugs living in a bad place. And if anyone tells her to change I'm going to advise her to ask why and to keep on asking that person "Why?" until she gets an answer she likes.

And if she doesn't... well, I look ruggedly darling in blue.

Jef has a new story, a tale of mad robot nurses and a man of miracles called "Sleepers, Wake!" available now. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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