Editor’s note: This article is part of Fast Company Spark, a new initiative for middle and high school readers.
No tank tops, leggings, or shorts that can’t pass the “fingertip rule,” with hemlines that are no longer than a student’s fingertips when their arms hang down at their sides. These are the types of dress code rules that are found in 62% of middle schools and 56% of high schools according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Once you start reading the rules, you’ll see that the majority are aimed at girls’ clothes and bodies.
Many girls say enough is enough. Kristen Wong is one of them. When she was a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Lincoln Middle School in Alameda, Calif., she was verbally warned about the outfit she wore — a pink tank top, cardigan, and jeans. While tank tops were against the dress code, the cardigan covered her shoulders. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep her from being scolded and embarrassed.
Wong, who is now a senior at Alameda High School, joined an effort to change her school’s dress code. She shares her journey where she not only convinced the school to change the policy; she helped enact a district-wide dress code that treated all students fairly. Wong’s successful campaign is a prime example of how Gen Z is engaging in activism. She joins other social reformers like Greta Thunberg and her climate change crusade and Parkland, Florida students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who organized March for Our Lives to fight school shootings.
His interview has been edited for clarity and space.
“Don’t wear this again or you will be penalized.”
I walked into the office to pick up a form, and one of the adults pointed at me and said, “Hey, don’t wear that anymore or you’ll be penalized.” Cover up the rest of the day. I didn’t have an official dress code, but that remark was almost worse. I was told I was not suitable and asked myself, “What did I do wrong?” The only thing I could think of was her looking at my top.
I wore a thick tank top with a cardigan. It was quite modest. I was undeveloped at the time so no cleavage was visible. It was the first time I was called. It didn’t feel good at all and made me embarrassed all day. I spoke to other girls and found out they had also been called out or had a dress code.
My school, Lincoln Middle School, had dress rules like no ripped jeans, no visible bra straps, shorts had to be a certain length. Many of the policies have disproportionately affected female students who identify as girls. My male peers wore basketball shorts or even tank tops on a hot day, and they never had a dress code. The problems were mainly due to the girls being called out on their tops.
“Does anyone want to join us in trying to change things?”
A few weeks later, Rebecca Baumgartner, my teacher and now my mentor, approached my leadership class and said, “Hey, some of my students have expressed frustrations in the dress code. Does anyone in management want to join us in trying to change things? I knew it was time to share my story and get involved. I had heard of other people having experiences like mine. I also learned that it was often older men, sisters, white teachers who were dress code students. I was called by a woman, which scared me more. She was already a teenager, she may be a mother. It’s almost like an extra stab, and not girls supporting girls.
About 10 girls and one boy joined Mrs. Baumgartner. We would meet at lunch, after school and online, do research and write a new policy. Ms. Baumgartner brought in a few other teachers. One of them went through the entire Old Navy website and discovered that our dress code only allowed about 30 items to be worn. We asked people to share photos of the outfits they wore when they had a dress code. These submissions had an impact. You could see people being called out or dressing up for unserious things.
We made a slide show and presented it at the school site council meeting. No one usually shows up for these things, but the gymnasium was full of students, mostly girls but some boys as well. We showed our research. We did a desegregation of the data in our school, comparing the number of people reported and the number of people just called, with a breakdown by grade level and age.
“We had to be clear, precise and concise.
Ultimately, it was more about presenting the ideology that this is a sexist dress code. There were tenured professors who were not happy. We knew these teachers and we knew we had to be clear, precise and concise, presenting information where they would vote “yes” to change things.
After this first meeting, we were asked to come back. We brought new policies and suggestions. We drafted some of the language that we wanted to change. Obviously, if you have profanity on your shirt or profanity images, that makes sense. But some of the policies did not. We said, “This is exactly the language we want to change and why. [what’s currently written is] problem. Can [this new language] be used for the next school year? »
They voted for it and it passed. Our dress code is printed in the school planner they distribute each year. We made sure that the revisions were changed.
Make bigger changes
During our research, we had learned that each of the 17 schools in the Alameda Unified School District could set its own dress code and that each had different rules. Ms. Baumgartner asked if we wanted to try to implement a new dress code across the district to make it fair. Four of us said “yes”. We were inspired by our first initial change at Lincoln Middle School.
We focused on drafting a policy for secondary education, but the code would also apply to elementary, with some language changes for younger students. We met the director of studies, Steven Fong. He agreed to our request to change the district dress code and we formed the dress code task force.
We had several meetings in the district. The fact that we had the director of studies on our side was great because he could set an agenda and give us access. He was a liaison between the students and our teacher against the Alameda Unified school board.
We started to invite principals to participate and to involve some parents. We worked hard on the wording of the policies. It took a long time, as it should, and was the hardest part. Assuming the policy is enacted in all school districts, the language can be used for or against you. It should be readable for students, as well as empowering, positive and reinforcing.
We reviewed the Oregon NOW (National Organization for Women) dress code policy. This is where we got inspiration for the sections that were “can’t wear”, “can wear” and “must wear”. Dress codes often say what you can’t wear. Students would say, “Can you give me some ideas of what I can wear?”
We have changed both the policy and the bylaw, which is consistent. We started pitching our ideas to discussion and stakeholder groups, like the PTA. We spoke to principals at after-school meetings. It was a two-year process, and it wasn’t easy. Eventually, we made a presentation to implement a district-wide policy to the school board, and it was approved.
Learn to ask for help and think about a wider impact
When stories started being written in newspapers and magazines and shared on social media, I was surprised by the comments about me saying that I was encouraging women to sexualize their bodies. It was the fact that students who choose to wear these garments are protected and empowered, and they should feel confident without being told they are disrupting the class.
When a conservative dress code is brought up, the conversation often becomes associated with the phrase “revealing the collarbone, bare legs and skin creates a distraction, and school is designed as a learning environment, which should be without distraction”. Yes, it’s true in the world of work, there are uniforms and other professional dress codes. As a school, the focus should be on minimizing barriers to education and maximizing student success, where students should feel comfortable, safe and ready to learn in this what they feel most confident about. The dress code creates this ideology that women have to hide, otherwise they are seen as the problem, which institutionalizes sexism.
Through this process, I learned a lot. For example, when a young person asks an adult for help, someone is almost guaranteed to respond and agree. There is always an element of equity in change and having a mentor is super important.
I learned that students have more power than they realize and that it is important to have diverse voices. We wanted to make sure we spoke on behalf of all students, including students from the LGBTQIA community, students who have different background stories, and students who may not be able to afford clothing defined by the old dress code. Ideology is an inclusive conversation and a living conversation that should be reviewed every year to reflect the changing times.
And I learned that you’re never too young to start. I was 14 when we approached the district and started changing the 17 school sites.
I used my experience changing the dress code as one of my college essays. I hope to study human development with a focus on equity and diversity. I want to get involved in women’s health and education. I want to enter the classroom when I’m older as a teacher. My work on the dress code really made me think, “How are developing girls affected? What access do they have to equity in health care and education? I hope to answer these questions and continue to work on policies.