I still have clothes I wore fifteen years ago. This is one part nostalgia. One part hoarder. And another part… height. I’ve been the same height since I was twelve. Now, some things I have lovingly donated because once you are not a teenager, the “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” needs to rule your every wardrobe decision.
When I was in tenth grade, I had to fight what we’ve finally come up with a word for: shaming. I was once “shamed” for a beautiful silk blouse.
I was sixteen.
My mom bought me a beautiful sheer silk blouse. I still own it because it is so lovely (and the whole hoarder thing). It is sheer black and it has gray and silver flowers on it. It also came with a black silk tank to wear under it. The tank reaches my hip bone when I stand and the straps are about as wide as my index, driving finger, and ring finger put together.
I wore it to school with a black skirt, which did touch my knees, and black dress boots. This was 2001, and I was already watching Sex and the City. I found my kindred shoe spirit in Carrie Bradshaw. It also happened to be the year that I was first told that I look like Sarah Jessica Parker. This is something that I now get frequently.
I walked into school that day, like every other day, eager to see my friends and start my day. I knew that second and fourth hours would come around eventually, and I would have to face math and science, but everyone has a struggle. Those were mine.
None of my friends make a big whippity do about my shirt. In my experience, teenagers don’t care. Unless you’re doing something really outlandish, they don’t care. They are trying to get through their own days without mishap, caring about yours is not on the agenda.
And beside that, I hit a phase around fourteen that I never outgrew. Pretty dresses. ALL the dresses. Some may call me a hoarder.
The fancy(ish) blouse, skirt, and boots thing was nowhere near abnormal for me.
The day droned on as it does when one is a high school sophomore. But I had a ray of sun in the middle of my day. I had English third hour. I remember loving tenth grade English and reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I sat next to people that I still know today and are not at all surprised that I teach writing. English was the best class ever. I got to read, we wrote, and I wasn’t (too) bored with the grammar and sentence diagramming. It was easy for me.
But then, after third hour, and before lunch, all hell broke loose.
I walked to my locker, which was on the hallway that all the science classes were on as well. The senior that had the locker next to be helped me pound it open (it stuck at the top) and I prepared to go to lunch. My best friends were waiting and it had been two whole class periods since we’d last seen each other. Something exciting must have happened. Surely!
“Miss Scott, you’re going to need to cover that blouse. It’s transparent. You’re violating the dress code.”
Oh no. I turned my head and saw my tenth grade chemistry teacher.
“Why me? Why now?” I thought.
I don’t really know why I chose that moment to exercise my “I know the English language better than you do”, smarty-pants, high school showoff moment, but I did.
“Well, actually it isn’t. My shirt would qualify as translucent, or even opaque mostly.” I slammed my locker and stared. Game on bro. Whatchu got?
He had the power to either a.) send me to the principal’s office, b.) make the rest of my day a nightmare. or c.) order me to change.
“You need to find something to cover that shirt before I see you again Miss Scott.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that…” I thought.
I was a straight A student, minus the occasional B in math and the evil known as science. I followed every rule. I only punched boys when they deserved it. But nowhere, anywhere, not in anyone’s wildest imaginations did I have the word “rebel” attached to me. Ever. It would have slid off of me like melting ice cream down a cone.
I had no intention of doing any such thing to cover my beautiful blouse. So, I didn’t.
I ignored him and went to lunch.
But my fit of teenage rebellion didn’t last long. I had chemistry afterward.
I walked into the room, sat in front of two friends and next to my lab partner.
“Miss Scott, I see you didn’t find something more appropriate to wear.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You have a choice Miss Scott. You may either cover that up or you may go to the office.”
I don’t hide anger well. My face shows everything that I think. Poker will never be my game.
I should have taken my chances with the office.
But one of my friends, a boy I’d known since sixth grade, gave me his Red Wings hoodie and gave me the “don’t fight it” look.
Mr. Chemistry won that round. I slid my friend’s hoodie over my head and proceeded to try to make sense of the elements.
The bell rang and we walked into the hall. It was only then that I realized that my friend’s hoodie was HUGE. He stood a good six inches taller than me. I’ve been the same height since I was twelve. My friend was at least six foot.
His hoodie bagged on me and it covered my skirt completely. I looked like I wasn’t wearing pants. I felt horrible and exposed. I looked like I’d done something wrong, and I hadn’t. My blouse was more conservative than a cheerleader’s top and my skirt was longer. Yet there I was, wearing a Red Wings hoodie of shame instead of an Hester Prinn letter. But little did anyone know, including me, that when I’m made to feel bad about myself, war is going to break out. And in this case, I felt like the Delta Force.
“Miss Scott, I better not see you without that hoodie for the rest of the day.”
“Fine.” I said. “You might see me with it, but I’ll be damned if you see me with it on.” I thought.
I walked to my next class and promptly tossed off the hoodie.
I made it through fifth hour Spanish, but I had to walk by Mr. Chemistry to get to sixth hour geometry.
“Miss Scott, didn’t you hear me the first time? I gave you explicit instructions.”
And to the office I went. Where I should have gone the first time. With the hoodie on.
I went into the office where I addressed every person by name. Then I sat. Waiting for the assistant principal to call me into her office.
Thank goodness! I was to see Ms. Assistant. A woman! She’d understand this debacle.
“Miss Scott, what are you here for today? Are you okay? Why are you missing class?”
I told her about Mr. Chemistry and the battle of the skirt and hoodie. I also got a little bold.
“I am not going around the school looking like a tramp. This hoodie covers my entire outfit and it looks tacky.”
See, I could be bold? And tramp? Sex and the City was paying off.
I proceeded to tell Ms. Assistant Principal that I was aware of the dress code and to my understanding, I wasn’t in violation. Yes, it said no “spaghetti” straps. My tank was the width of three fingers. Yes, it said that shoulders needed to be covered. Mine were.
Ms. Assistant Principal looked at the blouse I’d worn to school. “It’s fine” she said. “I’ll let Mr. Chemistry know that you are not violating the dress code.”
The day ended. I went home. And I told my mom about Mr. Chemistry.
“He did what?’ my mom asked.
“He told me to borrow a hoodie from someone and cover up my shirt” I replied.
“There is not a thing in this world wrong with that shirt!” my mom exclaimed.
When I told her how the hoodie covering all of me, including the skirt, made me feel, she also gave me a bit of advice that I’ve never forgotten.
“Don’t you ever do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. I don’t care who tells you to do it. You stand your ground, and if they have a problem with you, they can deal with me.” My mother sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one of my heroes.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I look at stories about dress codes today most of the time, I cringe. I remember being that girl, shamed by an older male teacher. I wasn’t “acceptable”. And although I don’t condone arguing with an elder, particularly one in any sort of authority role, I find it less “acceptable” to shame a teenage girl.
I developed some guts that day. In the science hall of my former high school. The rest of my gumption would form later. That was enough for sixteen.
Mr. Chemistry left me alone for the rest of my high school career, and Ms. Assistant Principal wrote me letters of recommendation to college.
Do dress codes have their place? Yes.
But so do women and girls, and that place isn’t the principal’s office.
Eleanor Roosevelt wouldn’t have it.