By Malena Solin ’20
Upon receiving Thacher’s 2018-2019 Student/Parent Handbook, many community members were surprised to see significant differences in the “Appearance and Dress” section. The handbook notes that the School will not “reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression” of either gender identity or gender expression, revising the dress code to be gender neutral and using “male-identifying” instead of “male” when discussing the hair policy. While the changes in the terminology appeared sudden to some students, conversations to eliminate gender-specific dress guidelines began at least as early as 2016.
While a committee dedicated to reforming the dress code existed during the 2015-2016 school year, no changes had taken place by the beginning of the following year, so a group of students from the class of 2017 began to evaluate how they could create a dress code that catered to students regardless of gender identity. Emma Freedman, Max Damon, Natalie Osuna, and Asher Wood, joined by then-sophomore Eli Graff, began a draft that they called the Trans Student Policy. “We were more or less focusing on getting trans students to feel more comfortable at Thacher…we decided that we needed to take a look at the dress code in order for a trans student to exist comfortably at Thacher,” said Eli. The Trans Student Policy, a 25-page long or longer document, included a section on the dress code, and former Head of School Michael Mulligan agreed to review it upon its completion.
The students of the class of 2017 graduated before recommendations from Trans Student Policy could be added to the dress code, so Eli took control of the project during the 2017-2018 school year, discussing possibilities for change frequently with Mr. Mulligan and Ms. McMahon. In the spring of 2018, Mr. Mulligan and Ms. McMahon called a meeting with Spectrum to discuss how the dress code should be changed, and according to Eli, spent time “revamping the language used in the dress code and the general guidelines.” This meeting produced the current handbook’s rules for appearance and dress, though what Eli called a “student-pushed” process.
Changing the dress code was necessary, said Eli, because “It’s so important for younger students and young people, in general, to be able to express themselves…and the way that they look is the first thing people actually see about them and having more control over that is going to help with self-confidence and defining who you are within these adolescent years.”
A gender-neutral dress code also lessens the possibility for cases of gendered sexualization of students. News agencies and social media provide numerous stories of shaming students, especially girls, for their clothing, with one New York Times article titled “Is Your Body Appropriate to Wear to School?” The prevalence of dress code scandals in the news, encouraging students to be sexualized by their teachers and peers, has reached national prominence, and the dress codes that cause these problems are gendered. Hopefully, Thacher’s new gender-neutral dress code will allow the school to avoid sexualizing students through the dress code while providing students with freedom of gender expression.