Issue #8: Wardrobe Malfunction

A teacher struggles with her student's barely there tops

Dear Kristin,

I have been teaching for 20 years. This year I have a female student in my classroom with a very large chest. It's not something I try to notice but at the same time, it is obvious to me that she is not wearing a bra some days. She wears very revealing tops and I can see over half of her chest. I worry about the possibility of her having a nip slip. I don't consider myself a prude but certain classmates are starting to whisper. Plus, I am catching some of my male students staring at her chest. So, now it is drawing unwanted attention and becoming a topic of discussion.

Part of me wonders if it’s best not to say a word as it could be body shaming. After all, it's her body she can display it however she likes. Then again, as a mom of two daughters, it makes me sad. I would want a happy medium for my daughters if they were in the same position. Clothes that look nice and accentuate their features but not on the verge of a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. Help! How do I proceed with this student?

–Not So Bossom Buddies

Dear Not So,

You are in a tough position for sure. I am glad you are thinking about different angles before you approach the subject. Many times teachers jump into conversations, usually due to lack of time to sit and think for five seconds about what the ramifications could be. This is a tricky one with a lot to unpack.

My experience. I was in a district that did away with the dress code. The school board had read a study that found that teachers were more likely to submit dress code discipline for girls and students of color. So, they did away with it. It's one of those issues where there was a disconnect between home and school. Difficult to discipline on an issue that the parents do not care about.

It was interesting to witness, as I found the removal of the policy to be a progressive move. However, I did not think that our building, or even our society had caught up to this progressive decision. The amount of complaining I heard from my co-workers about this policy being lifted . . . There is something about the female form that triggers people.

If I am being completely honest, sometimes, I was right there with my fellow staff members. There were times when I would see a female student walking down the hall and wonder, Is she wearing a bra as a shirt?! Sometimes I would see ass cheeks poking out of short shorts and debate if I should tell that student to find a sweatshirt to wrap around her waist, STAT!

Some of you are reading this and shaking your head, Yes, you should have said something. But, I didn’t. And not because I am an ultra feminine woke queen who isn’t bothered by underage girls walking around school, looking like they should be at the beach. (Guys, I used to wear cardigan sweaters to parties when I was in high school.) It was simply that I didn’t want to engage in the battle of covering up because I was tired. I was stretched so thin in my own classroom that I didn’t care much about what was happening in the halls. Plus, these weren’t my students. It was a fight my district said I didn’t have to fight. So, I didn’t.

Females targeted. When I think back to the instances when I was bothered by how the students were dressing, it was always the girls I noticed. Never the boys. Interesting, seeing how I am a female and possess the same body parts. It’s also important to note that as a high school special education teacher of lower-functioning students, sometimes I had to assist with toileting. So, seeing students’ private body parts was not abnormal for me. Still, why was I noticing and yes, judging these girls more? Either the girls were more likely to dress in a way that got my attention or I had a bias that made me notice them at a higher rate.

The Government of Accountability (GAO) found in their study that the majority of dress code rules target female dress, not male dress. I was right there with the rule makers; my teacher gaze was always drawn to the females and never once to how the males were expressing themselves. The U.S. News and World Report shared a story, illustrating how females at one school were targeted more than males:

“A group of high school track athletes in Albany, New York, were removed from practice in May for wearing sports bras and no shirts. The male athletes on their team were allowed to go shirtless, the Albany Times Union reports. The athletes were then suspended from school when they launched an online petition about gender bias in the school's dress code.”

It’s worth asking, why is it okay for the boys to be bare-chested, nipples out, but not the girls? And the girls' nipples were even covered by sports bras. The amount of attention, both positive and negative, that surrounds breasts is interesting.

It makes me wonder about what kids today are trying to accomplish with their boobs. I, like you, Not So, saw a lot of braless looks from students in my high school. Is this generation of high school kids trying to do away with bras? Generations before them had to fight to do away with skirts. Are bras going the way of skirts? CBS News reports:

“As recently as the 70s, girls were not allowed to wear pants in school and, in some cases, risked suspension if they were caught wearing a pair of shorts under their dresses.”

Society has long upheld a strict vision of what a female should wear. It’s difficult to imagine having to fight to be able to wear pants. Had prior generations not protested, ladies, we’d still be in dresses at work. Then again, I am hearing about tradwife trends on social media, so what if we swing back that way? Bras back on, everyone! Long skirts and high-necked shirts, here we come!

Teens protesting the high school dress code that banned slacks for girls in Brooklyn, 1940. Source: historydaily.org

Do you guys think this braless boobs-on-display look might be the last frontier of dress code retaliation? I mean, what could there possibly be to protest after this? Boobs all the way out? Nipples on full display? Maybe? For male students, are we headed towards seeing genitalia? What if balls out becomes a thing? How far are dress code protests actually going to go?

I have no answers, but it does make me wonder what my grandchildren’s generation will care about when it comes to dressing for school. For now, I have two boys in elementary, so the conversation about provocative dress on teenage girls is coming for me. It’s one of those things about sending kids off into the world; I will not have control over my kids’ peers’ choices, but I can prep my kids on how they should react.

Not So, I am grateful for your letter, as it’s helped me to explore the topic and begin to get a handle on what I would like to say when my time comes. I will explain that girls are going to choose what to wear, precisely as my boys also get to choose what to wear. Sometimes girls choose to accentuate parts of their bodies because it makes them feel good about themselves. Sometimes they like the attention it gets them. Same as how they will choose to dress, as they get older. They will want clothes that make them feel good and confident. They will want to choose looks that highlight the physical features that they like the most.

What they should not do is shame anyone for how they look, for how they dress. They need to view it as self-expression and nothing more. They still need to be respectful at all times and still be able to focus in school. I may even explain the extra scrutiny girls face. And yes, part of me will still cringe, when I attend their high school events, seeing what the girls are wearing (or not wearing). And as a middle-aged woman who has always dressed like a middle-aged woman, even when I was a teenager, that will be my cross to bear.

Advice. Let’s dig into some actionable responses, now that we reframed our thinking around dress code. Or maybe we haven’t? Maybe you are still like nope, these girls gotta cover up. That’s fine, I still have advice. I have advice on how to turn over the conversation to others in your building but also on how to deal with it, if you must.

Not So, I wonder if having access to a properly fitting bra might be an issue for your student? You said some days you have noticed she doesn’t have one on. Perhaps her parents have struggled to purchase enough bras to keep up with a rapidly growing chest, which can happen in high school.

Involve others. I would start by talking to her counselor. Or a social worker and/or interventionist? Someone with access to resources to help kids who need basic necessities. These professionals are also trained in the art of discussing delicate topics. You could ask to remain anonymous to the student. They might tell the student that a teacher has noticed that she does not always have a bra on. It’s understood that this might be a personal choice. However, they are happy to help the student acquire more bras, if they would like.

It might be a wake-up call for her that adults in the building are noticing her breasts being out. She may adjust her wardrobe naturally, after this conversation. You could also ask the counselors to discuss what the dress code says about females’ tops and if there is any specific language on breasts. This can be shared, just as a reminder to the student.

Addressing it. However, you might know the student well enough to know her family can afford bras. This is definitely her choice. She might wake up in the morning, feeling like she’s having a good boob day. She says to herself, as she plops on a loose-fitting shirt, You know what, the girls are gonna be seen today! I mean, god bless, if that is the case. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I was having a good boob day. Definitely before I had kids . . .

So, you might feel compelled to address it yourself because she is close to that nip slip and you don’t want to have to send her to the office for discipline. All teachers know, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. I think even more so when we are on the verge of having a nipple flop out in class.

First of all, make sure to protect yourself in case the conversation takes a left turn. Or, in case the student decides later that she wasn’t comfortable with what was said and a complaint is made. Ask another adult to be in on the conversation, perhaps her counselor or another teacher she has a good relationship with. I suggest a female. Also, make sure you fully understand your building’s dress code policy before you utter a word to her.

Explain that because it’s a sensitive subject, you need another adult in the room to ensure it’s handled correctly. Give the student a chance to tap out at any time. Don’t make it feel punitive or that you are judging her in any way. Explain that you have noticed she likes to wear low-cut tops. They are low-cut enough that you fear you might wind up seeing her nipples. Then let her know what disciplinary measures you would have to take, as a result. Hopefully she will make adjustments to her wardrobe, moving forward.

I wouldn’t get into how her peers react to her as that can feel body shame-y. She’s not responsible for how others react to her body, to what she’s wearing. Emphasize you want to support her (and try not to snicker at the pun).

If you are dying to have more delicate conversations with teenagers, as for the students whispering and staring, I would select the most obvious offenders. I would address it with them privately, one-on-one, not as a group. Frame it as a check-in, to let them know that you have noticed the open staring, the whispering. They should consider that if you notice it, the student also likely notices the unwanted attention. They may cast blame – Yeah, but why does she dress like that if she doesn’t want us to talk? They should understand that it’s not okay to react negatively to someone’s appearance, no matter how they are dressed. Ask them to focus their attention on other things. I would not bring up that she may not have the ability to get a properly fitted bra (if you do think that is the case).

Since these are difficult conversations involving students’ body parts, I would put in an email exactly who you talked to, and what was said. List out if there are any follow-up actions that need to take place. Send the emails to the students’ administrators and counselors. This will allow other adults in the building to be aware of the situation. They can provide additional guidance/assistance or just simply be aware, should an angry parent call the school.

Finally, there’s a chance that the conversations don’t go well and no changes are made. Your admin and the dress code might not support you in this situation. Generally, if you find yourself still bothered, then, you are going to have to dig a little deeper. You mentioned you wouldn’t want this for your daughters. Instead, try to imagine that she was your daughter and she was insistent on dressing like this. Think more in terms of acceptance instead of thinking punitively. Ask yourself how, as her mother, would you like her teachers and peers to react to her? You can be that teacher for her.

If you still can’t fathom it, you could also ask yourself, are her wardrobe choices so dangerous, so distracting, that it’s an important enough cause to lose instruction over? In my first issue, I advised a teacher who noticed that her colleagues were always late to try to look at her co-workers’ overall abilities to get the work done. They might be late, and that might bother you, but are they still doing their jobs?

It could be like that. This could be generational, this could be cultural, this could just be the way this young person feels empowered. We could apply the same shift of focus here - this is not how I would dress, this isn’t how I want my daughters to dress, but can this student still learn? Can she still get her work done and function in my classroom? Yes, it is distracting, there is whispering and staring, but I am guessing it’s not overwhelming enough that you can’t get through a lesson.

That being said, do drop me a line if you see a nipple and there’s big fallout. I will humbly share your “told ya so!” with the readers.

–Kristin

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