Editor’s Note: This article is part of Fast Company Sparka new initiative for middle and high school readers.
No tank tops, leggings, or shorts that can’t pass the “fingertip rule,” with hems that aren’t longer than a student’s fingertips when their arms hang at their sides. These are they types of dress code rules 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, and you’ll see that the majority are aimed at girl’s clothes and bodies.
Many girls are saying 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 was wearing—a pink tank top, cardigan, and jeans. While tank tops were against the dress code, the cardigan covered her shoulders. Still, it wasn’t enough to stop 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 got 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 the Parkland, Fla. students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who organized March for Our Lives to address school shootings.
Her interview has been edited for clarity and space.
“Don’t wear that again or you’ll be penalized.”
I was walking into the office to pick up a form, and one of the adults pointed at me and said, “Hey, don’t wear that again or you’ll be penalized. Cover up the rest of the day.” I wasn’t formally dress coded, but that remark almost felt worse. I was being told that I wasn’t appropriate and left wondering, “What did I do wrong?” The only thing I could think of is that she looked at my top.
I was wearing a thick tank top with a cardigan. It was completely modest. I was not developed at the time, so no cleavage was showing. This was the first time I was called out. It did not feel good at all and made me self-conscious all day. I talked to other girls and found out they had been called out or dress coded, too.
My school, Lincoln Middle School, had dress code rules like no ripped jeans, no bra straps showing, shorts had to reach a certain length. Many of the policies disproportionately affected female-identifying students. My male peers would wear basketball shorts or even tank tops on a hot day, and they were never dress coded. The problems were mostly with girls being called out on their tops.
“Does anybody want to join us to try 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 been expressing frustrations in the dress code. Does anybody in leadership want to join us to try to change things?” I knew this was my moment to share my story and get involved. I had heard about others having experiences like mine. I also learned it was often older male, sis, white teachers who were dress coding students. I was called out by a woman, which felt scarier. She’s been a teen before, she may be a mom. It’s almost like an extra backstab, and not girls supporting girls.
About 10 girls and one boy joined Ms. Baumgartner. We would meet at lunch, after school, and online and do research and write new policy. Ms. Baumgartner brought in a few other teachers. One went through the whole Old Navy website and found that our dress code would only allow about 30 items to be worn. We asked people to share pictures of the outfits they wore when they were dress coded. Those submissions were impactful. You could see people were being called out or dress coded for unserious things.
We made a slideshow and presented it to the School Site Council meeting. No one usually shows up to those things, but the gym was full of students, mostly girls but boys, too. We showed our research. We did a desegregation of data in our school, comparing how many people were reported and how many were just called out, with a breakdown on grade level and age.
“We had to be clear, specific, and concise.”
Ultimately, it was more about presenting the ideology that it is a sexist dress code. There were tenured teachers that were not happy. We knew those teachers, and we knew we had to be clear, specific, and concise, presenting information where they would vote “yes” to change things.
After that first meeting, we were asked to come back. We brought in new policy and suggestions. We drafted some of the language that we wanted to change. Obviously, if you have profanity on your shirt or rude images, that makes sense. But some of the policies did not. We said, “Here’s exactly the language we want to change and why [what’s currently written is] problematic. Can [this new language] be used for the next school year?”
They voted on it and it passed. Our dress code is printed in the school planner that they give out every year. We made sure the revisions were changed.
Making larger changes
During our research we had learned that each of the 17 schools in the Alameda Unified School District could make their own dress code, and each had different rules. Ms. Baumgartner asked if we wanted to try to get a new dress code put in district wide to make it equitable. Four of us said, “yes.” We were inspired by our first initial change at Lincoln Middle School.
We focused on writing policy for secondary schooling, but the code would apply to elementary, too, with some language changes for younger students. We met with the Chief Academic Officer, Steven Fong. He took on our plea to change the dress code for the district and we created the Dress Code Task Force.
We had multiple meetings at the district. The fact that we had the chief academic officer on our side was great because he could make an agenda and give us access. He was a liaison between students and our teacher versus the School Board of Alameda Unified.
Getting others involved
We started inviting principals to participate and got a few parents to chime in. We worked hard on policy language. That 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 has to be readable for students, as well as empowering, positive, and reinforcing.
We looked at the Oregon NOW (National Organization for Women) dress code policy. That was where we drew inspiration for sections that were “cannot wear,” “may wear,” and “must wear.” Dress codes often say what you can’t wear. Students were saying, “Can you give me some ideas of what I can wear?”
We changed both the policy and administrative regulation, which is cohesive. We started presenting our ideas to focus and stakeholder groups, like the PTA. We talked to principals at after-school meetings. It was a two-year process, and it was not easy. Eventually, we made a presentation to implement a district-wide policy to the school board, and it was approved.
Learning to ask for help and thinking of wider impact
When the stories started to be written in newspapers and magazines and shared on social media, I was surprised at the comments towards me that said I was promoting women to sexualize their bodies. It was the fact that students who do choose to wear that are protected, and allowed, and they should feel confident without being told they’re disrupting the classroom.
When a conservative dress code is brought up, often the conversation pairs with the phrase “revealing clavicle, bare legs, and skin creates a distraction, and school is meant as a learning environment, which should be distraction-free.” Yes, it is true in the working world, there are uniforms and other professional dress codes. As a school, the focus should be minimizing barriers to education and maximizing student success where students should feel comfortable, safe, and ready to learn in whatever they feel most confident in. The dress code creates this ideology that women must cover up or else they are seen as the problem, which institutionalizes sexism.
Through this process, I learned a lot. For example, when a youth asks an adult for help, it is almost guaranteed that someone will answer and be willing. There is always an equity piece in change and having a mentor is super important.
I learned that students have more power than think they do, and it’s important to have diverse voices. We wanted to make sure we were speaking for all students, including students of the LGBTQIA community, students who have different background stories, and students who may not be able to afford clothes defined by the old dress code. Ideology is an inclusive conversation and a living conversation that should be reviewed every year to reflect changing times.
And I learned you’re never too young to start. I was 14 years old when we approached the district and started changing all 17 school sites.
I used my experience changing the dress code as one of my college essays. I am hoping to study human development with an emphasis in equity and diversity. I want to be involved with women’s health and education. I want to enter the classroom when I’m older as a teacher. My dress code work really made me think, “How are developing girls impacted? What access do they have to equity in health care and education?” I hope to answer those questions and continue doing policy work.