DSC_0456The thing is we live in Midtown Atlanta, ground zero for the culture that birthed “Love & Hip Hop,” the Nae Nae and every rapper’s favorite stripper haunt, Club Onyx, so it only makes sense that the little girls around our way roll to the local high school with Ruby Woo-painted lips, bird wing-length eyelashes, weaves and wigs swinging and clothes that are questionable at best. Thanks to some serious home training and a boatload of common sense, my 15-year-old knows better than to even think about leaving the house dressed inappropriately. But that didn’t stop my freak-out the other morning when she tried to leave for school in a crop top that, when she raised her arms, showed off a little belly.

“Oh, no ma’am,” I said, shaking my head violently from side to side. “I’mma need you to either grab a jacket or put on a tank top if you’re going to wear that shirt, babe. Get to it.”

Be clear: I’m no prude and I’m not raising one. And on any other occasion—going to the mall, heading to a friend’s house, attending a party—what Mari was wearing would have been perfectly fine and age appropriate. But she was heading to school. Specifically, a public school. Where girls in general and Black girls, in particular, seem to be targeted for strict wardrobe policing by everyone from the principal to the janitor. The last thing I want to do during the course of my day is run up to the school with a change of clothes for my daughter, or, worse, have her dressed in somebody’s old, nasty clothes from the lost-and-found bin and sent to in-school detention for running afoul of the school’s dress policy.

To be fair, I think the dress code is reasonable: skirts and shorts need to be the same length as a student’s longest finger when hands are placed at her sides, spaghetti straps are not allowed and sagging and hats are a no-go for the boys. I wouldn’t want to see anybody’s drawers, boobs or booty while I’m working or studying either.

Where it gets dicey, though, is in the part of the rules that morph and stretch and twist to fit the awfully subjective whims of people who view Black bodies through a wholly different lens. In their eyes, an African American girl with 36Cs, thick thighs and a bubble booty rocking the same regular ol’ crop top and a cute skirt as her white counterpart becomes  a nubile slut intent on turning out her teachers and fellow students in the nearest stairwell or beneath the bleachers. She is sexy. Inappropriate. Wild. Loose. And must be tamed, by any means necessary.

I saw this with my own eyes when my niece, a curvy little Beyonce Barbie, got sent home practically once a week over her clothes, many of which I purchased and thought were just fine, but that would draw the attention of one particular vice principal and a couple of teachers who would fall just shy of calling her a slut-puppy for wearing what every other teenager was wearing. On a couple of mornings, Nick and I actually went over to the school and watched the students walking into the front doors and took note that many of the white girls were wearing outfits infinitely more scandalous than my niece, but no one seemed to see fit to send them to the disciplinary office. They were too busy clocking what the Black and Latina girls were wearing. For sure, whenever we got called down to bring our niece a new outfit, she’d be sitting in that office seething next to a room full of girls of color, all of whom were deemed “inappropriate” by whoever took it upon themselves to decide this so.

It was disgusting.

And to have my daughter tell it, it’s not too much better at her school, either. “There’s a lot of white girls who wear some scandalous clothes and they never seem to get in trouble for it,” she said. “Like, ever.”

Granted, there are a few stories floating around about white girls facing the wrath of school administrators jumping all over them for their clothing choices. Late last week, a school superintendent in Noble, Oklahoma, came under fire for suggesting that some of her female students were “skanks” for dressing too provocatively for her taste and later forcing other female students to bend over to gauge whether their skirts and dresses were too short. (For the record: had someone forced my kid to bend over so she could take a look at her crotch area, y’all would be crowdsourcing my bail right now.) And a bunch of courageous middle schoolers in South Orange, New Jersey, took their school administration head-on with their #IAmNotADistraction campaign, arguing that rules focused solely on restricting girls’ outfits to keep boys from being “distracted” made them feel like they’re “bad” and need to cover up and that boys are “animalistic” and can’t control themselves.

They have a point. But add to the mix school suspensions and other punishments that Black girls face disproportionately to their white counterparts, and those deeply-rooted stereotypes of black girls and women as hypersexualized, vulgar, ghetto, animalistic, titillating hookers become a convenient-and-deadly weapon that slashes and burns our daughters’ educational opportunities, disciplinary records, self-esteem—even prom nights. It becomes more than a cute hashtag and a rally for the right to wear a bikini to a school-sponsored pool party. It becomes a matter of more odds stacked against our daughters’ education and graduation rates and certainly their right to… be.

I don’t want that for my kid. She doesn’t want that for herself, either. And so even on the hottest days, she wears pants instead of shorts, sweaters over crop tops and tanks, and avoids leggings like the plague. And frankly, that makes me hot as hell.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

3 Comments

  1. Much needed article Our girls need to learn early that they are beautiful as they are.

  2. This, infuriatingly, doesn’t stop after school. I’ve been singled out at my job before for not dressing “professionally” because I have cleavage.

    If I slip one day, I get called in for it. Yet, I’ve seen my co-workers come to work in things that were SEE-THROUGH and no one batted an eye.

    For the record, I work in an office, in washington, d.c.

  3. As a public high school assistant principal, I do serve in the role of enforcing the dress code, more so than my male colleagues who “feel uncomfortable for addressing female dress code issues”, but that’s another topic altogether. If there isn’t cleavage and ass cheeks hanging out, if I can’t see your thong through your sheer leggings and there isn’t obvious camel-toe going on in the front, then I’m sending you back to class to LEARN. I don’t have time to deal with dress code all day everyday…. and I have worked with administrators who make it their business to police this thing ALL DAY EVERYDAY. Girl, bye. There are more pressing issues in our schools that need my immediate attention (like the smell of marijuana emanating from the basement boys’ bathroom on day 3 of a new school year. But I digress).

    As for the young ladies with the Anna Nicole cleavage, ass cheeks, thongs and camel-toes in plain view, I will pull them into my office with the quickness. But I believe it’s all in HOW you do it. When I conference with my ladies regarding their attire, I do so in a manner that I believe is respectful and ensures that they still feel dignified. They aren’t condemned; I find SOMETHING to compliment them on (“Love the lip color, sweetness…..sit down, let’s talk about something real quick.”) We talk one-on-one, most of the time behind closed doors. I DON’T discuss their attire being a distraction because, face it… ANYTHING can be a distraction to teenage boys these days; so THAT shouldn’t dictate what’s appropriate. We discuss scenarios about WHERE it may be okay to wear these things….. chilling around the house, flossing at a party, trying to get a couple phone numbers at the neighborhood pool, but NOT at school. We talk positive self-image. I tell them they’re beautiful. We discuss getting your respect like strong young black women, and looking the part. I’ll give them a longer shirt or cute cardigan to throw on and return to me at the end of the day. Most of them laugh during the 4-minute dialogue, accept my offer of an alternative, and continue on to class. I call the home to let parents know that I spoke with them and gave them a shirt to wear so the girls can continue to do what they sent their daughter to school for…..LEARN. Most parents respond positively. But if the young lady refuses that approach, then YES honey, you are going to have to call home for a change of clothes. Either way, whichever approach, it has to be addressed.

    If we as women don’t help our girls in the right spirit and tone, then they WILL feel criminalized, condemned and nasty. That should NOT be our purpose. And we must be equal opportunity enforcers…. chubby, bootylicious, scrawny-skinny, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, shouldn’t matter.

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