When Wilton mom Rebecca Rubin‘s 11-year-old daughter asked if she could wear a crop top to school, Rubin asked members of the Working Moms of Wilton Facebook group for advice and clarification on the Middlebrook Middle School dress code. After she learned that crop tops were not prohibited, she allowed her daughter to wear the shirt to school.
That day, a Middlebrook staff member told her daughter, “Your belly is hanging out, you must feel so cold with your shirt that short, that’s more appropriate for the beach,” Rubin recalled.
Rubin’s daughter was extremely upset about these comments. She was proud to go to school in a new outfit and did not understand the connotation of showing skin on her stomach.
Rubin has read about and researched self-esteem in adolescent girls.
“Making them feel secure in their choices and not trying to sexualize their choices is the advice that adolescent medicine people and pediatricians are giving right now,” she explained, adding, “Implying that my 11-year-old’s bellybutton is sexual is offensive and not healthy,” said Rubin.
Although she said she is generally conflict-averse, Rubin felt she had to speak up.
“I’m trying to model the behavior I want to see from my kids. You know, stand up for what you know is right, don’t let people walk all over you, and down with the patriarchy. This smells of this patriarchy.”
Rubin wrote a letter to Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins. The response she got “really let me down,” she said.
“I was so disappointed. It was basically like, ‘You shouldn’t go to Facebook for advice on school policies. The dress code is in the handbook, here’s a copy of it. It clearly says, ‘no beach attire, no cutouts, no spaghetti straps.’”
The full, exact wording of the current Middlebrook dress code states: “The responsibility for the dress and grooming of a student rests primarily with the student and his/her parents or guardians. Clothing should be appropriate for an educational environment. For example, beach attire, tops with spaghetti straps or cutouts, and/or offensive T-shirts, are not acceptable attire in school. Neither is clothing or jewelry which promotes the use of drugs or alcohol. Students are expected to remove their hats upon entering the building and store them in their locker. Student Council may designate specific days for the wearing of hats or special costumes. Middlebrook School reserves the right to determine what constitutes dress that is inappropriate and/or disruptive to the educational climate or process. Students who dress inappropriately will be asked to call their parents for a change of clothes.” (Middlebrook Student Handbook)
GMW asked Higgins how Middlebrook staff members are instructed to handle the dress code with students.
“As a faculty, we recognize that one of our responsibilities is to uphold the student handbook and follow all Board [of Education] policies and district procedures. There is not an internal policy that singles out any one expectation or policy; it is our practice to work together with students and families to ensure that school and district expectations are met,” he said.
Higgins added that revisions of dress code policy are completed at the Board of Education (BOE) level and that, “they have already begun to address that in their planning.”
GMW has learned that the policy concerning student attire currently is being reviewed by Superintendent Kevin Smith and the BOE.
Both Higgins and Wilton Public Schools Director of Human Resources and General Administration Maria Coleman encourage students and parents to continue reaching out to school administrators to express any concerns about the dress code.
Rubin understands teachers may think they’re acting in a student’s best interests or have good intentions when they point out what they believe is a dress code violation — but she says that isn’t what’s best for a child.
“I think it’s their own visceral reaction to, ‘That girl shouldn’t show so much skin, it’s not good for them, they’re putting themselves in danger, they’re looking slutty, I’m going to help them by telling them to cover up,” she guessed. “They need to … take a look at their own biases and how we were raised to believe that female bodies are naughty or wrong or bad.”
Rubin’s ideal outcome would be, “re-education of the staff [based] on what the best recommendations of adolescent doctors and psychologists are now. That you should not be shaming girls for being proud of their bodies or for showing their body parts at school.”
What Local Experts Say
Wilton resident Sarah Beach, founder of STRONG. The Magazine for Girls, has two daughters and a son, none of whom have run afoul of the Middlebrook dress code.
However, Beach said, “If anyone dress coded my child I would be absolutely livid.”
Beach told GMW that preteen girls stress enough about their own bodies without the input of teachers at school.
“They’re at a time in their lives where their bodies are changing rapidly anyway and they’re getting messages that there’s something shameful about their bodies and that they have to be covered up.”
She explained how some girls have not yet begun to view themselves sexually at the time they are dress-coded, so no one else should be viewing them that way.
“It also tells both boys and girls that if the way a girl dresses distracts a boy, that it’s the girl’s problem and not the boy’s. That’s really bad because that’s basically saying that if a boy feels uncomfortable, then his discomfort is more important than a girl being comfortable in her skin and in what she’s wearing.”
As the mother of a son as well as daughters, Beach does not believe that dress coding is only a girls’ issue.
“It’s disingenuous to boys to suggest that they can’t focus because they can see a shoulder or a bit of stomach,” she said. “It perpetuates rape culture and victim-blaming.”
“It teaches boys that ‘I’m supposed to be distracted by a shoulder or I’m supposed to have a problem with the way a girl dresses.’ It’s part of this whole thing teaching women and girls to avoid getting attention instead of teaching boys and men not to give unwanted attention,” Beach added.
Beach has open conversations with her children about these issues and tries to keep the focus on feelings and empathy.
“We talk about, ‘If that was me I would feel embarrassed, I would feel ashamed of my body, I probably wouldn’t want to wear anything like that again.’ It starts with empathy and talking to each other about how these things make other people feel.”
Beach says that appropriate clothing for school should be clothing that allows students to be safe and effectively learn — on their own terms.
“Who gets to decide that? The kids and their parents at home,” she asserted.
Certified parent coach and founder of Thrive With A Guide, Wilton resident Vanessa Elias says she understands the position schools are in.
“It’s one of those, ‘You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ things, and people at the school are hesitant about articulating or setting guidelines on it. At the same time, it needs to be very clear,” she said.
One of Elias’ daughters had a dress code incident in a Wilton school — she was told to cover up for wearing a shirt with a small cutout in the back. When her daughter told the teacher she didn’t have anything to cover up with, the teacher said not to worry and that it was fine for her to continue the school day dressed as she was.
“All school staff needs to know what the policy is. Right now it seems to be up to the discretion of the teacher. There are instances where one teacher will say something about what a student is wearing but another teacher won’t,” Elias said.
One of the major issues with the dress code is how it emotionally affects the students singled out for violating it, most of whom are girls.
“It’s embarrassing for girls. They feel guilty about what they’re showing, what that means, why it’s not okay,” Elias said. “[My daughter] felt really awkward. It was upsetting. She was really upset that she felt she got in trouble and was called out in front of other kids”
Many times when teachers dress code students, they point out parts of their bodies that are showing. Elias said teachers have told girls they were showing too much cleavage or shoulders.
One Wilton parent (who asked to remain anonymous so their daughter would not be identified) recalled a teacher at Cider Mill telling their daughter that she needed to start wearing a bra because her breasts were showing through her shirt.
Elias believes comments like these, focused on girls’ body parts, are unacceptable.
“Saying ‘your outfit doesn’t comply with our dress code’ would be a much better option,” she said.
“We spend so much time objectifying our own bodies as women and when society around us is giving us comments and telling us what we’re showing or not showing isn’t okay it just makes things worse,” Elias added.
Elias acknowledged that there are parents who are proponents of a strict dress code, but wonders why.
“Is it from boys? Is it from male teachers? I don’t know. What is the point of it?”
She recognized that wearing attire appropriate for the situation is important, but “unless we have uniforms and unless something is offensive like words on a shirt or something like that … how is a body offensive?”
Elias agreed with Beach that a dress code perpetuates rape culture. “It’s the beginning point of ‘Well, she dressed like that so she asked for it.’”
[Editor’s note: Following publication, Elias asked GOOD Morning Wilton to clarify the way her remarks were characterized: “I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my perspective. I believe that dress codes can perpetuate a victim-blaming culture and not a ‘rape culture.’ Victim blaming is on a spectrum and I believe that many dress codes lie at one end of that spectrum.”]
Girls at Middlebrook have had upsetting encounters related to the dress code for years.
Emme Crameri (Wilton High School Class of 2019) reflected on her experience with the Middlebrook dress code when she was in sixth grade. Crameri was told by a teacher that the length of her shorts violated the dress code. Crameri explained she was tall for her age and speculated that her long legs may have made the length of her shorts stand out.
Crameri vividly remembers the day she was dress-coded.
“It’s all I thought about all day,” she said, and worried that the teacher now looked down on her. It felt like their teacher-student relationship had somehow changed for the worse.
Looking back on that day 11 years later, Crameri has developed a perspective on the harms of dress coding that she did not have yet at age 12.
“I see it less personally now. I see it as more of a social and cultural issue now instead of me just getting into trouble,” she said.
However, the emotions she felt that day have stayed with her.
“The fact that I remember it how many years later, that stuff sticks to you. Do I think any of the boys remember looking at me that day? No.”