Mason Middle School student Kenzie Sollars and her mom went shopping over spring break for a dress to wear to her Tacoma school’s end-of-the-year eighth-grade dance.
Kenzie found one she liked a lot. But it was a dress that showed her shoulders and, as her mom confirmed later with a school administrator, that violates the school’s rules for eighth-grade dance attire.
“It’s saying that all girls’ body parts are a distraction, which makes no sense,” said Kenzie, 14. “It’s objectifying women. And it’s also saying boys can’t control themselves.”
She and some of her fellow Mason students, who are required to wear uniforms to class, are looking for more freedom to choose clothing for the school dance. That’s why Kenzie drew up a petition to change the dance rules and began circulating it at her Proctor District school Monday.
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Soon, other students joined in the efforts. Bern Phillips, 13, put the petition online at change.org, and it’s been signed by people all over the country and in the U.K. and Canada.
Kenzie estimates that the petitions circulating at school have been signed by about 200 people, including faculty members. Bern’s online efforts have gathered more than 350 supporters.
The girls say they hope to meet with their principal and lobby for a rule change. The no-shoulders rule is one of 11 rules for the eighth-grade dance. Other regulations say that girls’ skirts or shorts must be within three inches of their knees; spaghetti straps and strapless styles are banned, as are tank tops, unless a student wears a smock, sweater or jacket; and transparent, mesh, lace and fishnet material is also forbidden.
Students who don’t conform to the rules at the dance will be asked to call home and ask for a change of clothes. If they can’t obtain one, the rules say, students will be required to wear “school issued dress code.”
Tacoma Public Schools spokeswoman Elle Warmuth talked with Mason officials for an explanation of what’s behind the rules. She was told they’re intended to “reflect age-appropriate attire at the middle school level.” She said school officials also hope the dress code will help downplay sensitive adolescent issues about body image.
“They want the students to focus on the social enjoyment of the event, and not the clothing,” Warmuth said.
She said the guidelines have been in place at Mason at least 12 years, and she said that each school determines its own dress code.
The eighth-grade girls circulating the petitions at Mason say it’s time for authorities to take a fresh look at the rules that are almost as old as they are.
“We want to make a change,” said Bianca Ponnekanti, 13. “We’re not just complaining. If we don’t change it, who will?” (Bianca is the daughter of News Tribune writer Rosemary Ponnekanti.)
“It’s something we are passionate about,” Bern said. “All girls are tired of being told what to do. They are tired of being shamed for their bodies, when there’s not even anything wrong with them.”
“It’s just shoulders,” added Audrey Elliott, 14. “Everyone has them.”
Abby Lawver, 14, said she thinks the rule should state that “if your parents let you go out of the house with it, it should be OK.”
“It’s not only degrading to women, it’s degrading to the guys who go to our school,” Bianca said. “They are being told they can’t control themselves around shoulders.”
The girls say they also feel they’re being targeted unfairly, because most of the rules apply to them while none specifically mention boys. One rule, for example, states that if girls wear pants, they should be a “dressy style.” But there are no rules banning jeans for boys.
There are rules banning sweatpants, hats, hoods and head coverings, along with frayed or ripped pants.
Parents of the petitioners support their daughters’ efforts.
Bern’s mom, Cheryl Phillips, already bought her daughter’s shoulder-baring dress, which she calls a “1950s-type halter top.”
“It’s pretty modest,” Phillips said. “I didn’t have a problem with it. My parents’ generation wore strapless dresses.”
The girls and their moms point out that it’s hard to shop for formal summer dresses these days and find styles that cover the shoulders.
“I think it’s a double standard for boys and girls clothing,” said Nathe Lawver, Abby’s dad. He thinks rather than banning popular dress styles, schools should be sending a clearer message to boys about shoulder-baring fashion.
“How about if we teach the boys that that’s not an invitation?” he said.