Middle School Student Defies School Dress Code to Make a Powerful Statement

Jacqueline Burt Cote

middle schooler challenges dress code
Portland Press Herald /Getty Images
While far too many schools (not to mention workplaces, and even airplanes) still have outdated and sexist dress codes in place, more and more girls are speaking out and standing up for their rights. When Portland, Maine, middle schooler Molly Neuner was reprimanded for wearing a tank top to school, she not only wore a sleeveless shirt to class again, but she turned her defiance into a movement -- and even the district superintendent is taking notice.

Molly knew she was breaking the King Middle School rules by wearing a purple racerback tank to school earlier this week, but she did it anyway. That's because the sixth grader feels that even though the dress code forbids boys from wearing tank tops, too, the rule is applied unfairly to girls -- and, in her case, in a rather humiliating way.

As reported in the Portland Press Herald, during in-class snacktime, a teacher asked Molly and another girl to stand up and measure their clothes in front of all the other students -- with Molly being told to measure the width of her shoulder strap (to make sure it was "two fingers wide") and the other girl being forced to put her arms straight at her side and prove that her shorts weren't above fingertip length.

"She made us feel really uncomfortable," Molly told the Portland Press Herald. "It was really uncomfortable and weird."

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Molly was reprimanded on the spot, and then again on the playground, when the teacher told her to cover up with a sweatshirt (which she didn't have). Molly was then given a warning and told that if she broke dress code again, she'd get a one-hour detention.

But Molly did break dress code again, and in a much more deliberate way. Not only did she wear a tank top to school again, but she also added a very clear message written on her arm: #IAmNotADistraction

girl protests tank top rule at school
Portland Press Herald /Getty Images

And she wasn't alone! About 20 other girls in her class who were similarly fed up also broke dress code rules in support of Molly's message.

"It was so cool to see everyone doing it," Molly told the paper.

Not only was the group effort cool, but it was also effective. King Middle School principal Caitlin LeClair met with Molly's parents (who were in complete agreement with their daughter) and decided that the school will review the dress code at the end of the year.

"We plan to take this feedback and use it as an opportunity to have some students' and parents' input," the principal revealed to the paper. 

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But that's not all: Even Superintendent Xavier Botana is getting involved, telling the Portland Press Herald that the districtwide dress policy -- which prohibits clothes that cause a "material and substantial disruption" of the school -- could use some tweaking.

"I don't believe we should be dictating fashion or measuring the length of shorts if it's not a material and substantial distraction," he said, adding: "I would be hard-pressed to understand how the size of a strap makes a substantial and material disruption."

Agreed. It's just common sense -- except apparently it's not, because too often teachers and administrators single out students (usually female) for their clothing (usually acceptable), wasting valuable time that should be spent educating kids about actual useful things.

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And yes, there are those who dismiss dress codes as benign, if somewhat antiquated. Others even support the policies as ways to promote "decency" and "morals." But there's an insidious undercurrent that can't be denied. As Galen Sherwin of the ACLU Women's Rights Project wrote in a recent blog post:

"Even when dress codes seem gender-neutral, they are frequently used to police girls' bodies -- sending the message that girls are a 'distraction' to boys or men."

At least girls are finally starting to reject that message, and the powers-that-be (if this is any indication) are finally starting to listen. There's not going to be nationwide change overnight, but little by little -- brave middle schooler by brave middle schooler -- we'll hopefully put an end to rules that single out and shame girls who have done nothing wrong.

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Molly isn't 100 percent convinced yet that the policy at her school will really be updated, but she's still encouraged and inspired by the response she's gotten.

"I'm happy they're going to look at it," she told the paper, "but I want to make sure they really do it."

So do we!

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feminism, in the news, women's issues, middle school