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A reason for girls to dress modestly in school … that has nothing to do with boys

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New research might put those skin tight leggings back in the drawer for good, with no whining.

Parents of tween and teen girls have likely already had the “appropriate clothing” conversation, after their daughters have appeared ready for school wearing skin-tight leggings or a crop top. This is not me trying to suppress your “freedom of expression,” you tell them; our bodies are beautiful, but also special, not mere objects to be advertised or shown off in any way. Feel free to express yourself any way you like … using your baggy khakis and oxford shirts that aren’t missing their entire middle …

But seriously … next time you are confronted with this, wait for the whining to stop and then offer them this excellent reason for them to consider their clothing choices more carefully: Those see-through leggings might be distracting them from their schoolwork.

Dr. Leonard Sax MD, writing in Psychology Today, points out that more and more research shows a connection between what women (and girls) wear and their tendency to self-objectify. In other words, girls in tight or revealing clothing at school are so worried about how they look, they have trouble concentrating in class and doing their work.

Of course, the standard rationale that many school districts give for banning skimpy clothing for girls is that it’s distracting to the boys. And, let’s be honest, it can be. But this new research turns that whole argument on its ear, and calls into question whether motives such as self-entitlement and freedom from misogynistic norms are really valid reasons to change school dress codes, which many are already doing. For example, two 5th grade girls in Atlanta have gathered 1,000 signatures in favor of changing the school dress code to allow leggings. “I should not be punished for other people’s behavior. I am not a distraction,” said 10-year-old Falyn Handley.

That’s true … except we don’t live in a bubble. We do need to teach our kids that what we wear and how we behave — either physically, verbally or through our expression of personal style — does effect other people. And while we shouldn’t feel punished for it, it should matter to us. It’s naive to think otherwise.

This goes for adults, too, and it’s why simply telling our kids what they can and can’t wear isn’t enough. It goes way deeper into issues of human dignity and respect — for others and for ourselves. We need to set the example, too, which is why as much as I personally love my yoga pants and would wear them 24 hours a day if I could (okay, yes, I have), we need to model the appropriate dress in different life situations, especially in the workplace. With many office settings going “casual” these days, permitting jeans and even shorts in the summer, it’s easy to let those standards slip or simply fail to follow our internal guideposts that allow us to perform at our best.

“When we put on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment,” Dr. Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist, told Forbes. “A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it’s ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear,’ so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.”

It’s a hard thing measure definitively, but Pine believes that casual dressing could affect our focus and affect our productivity — and that goes for both women and men.

So what does this say about wearing clothes like skin-tight leggings?

In one of the studies on self-objectification Dr. Sax cites, a group of college women were given a math test wearing either a baggy sweater or a one-piece swimsuit. (They were in a room by themselves with no one looking at them.) A group of college guys were given the same test, wearing either swim trunks or a baggy sweater. Not surprisingly, the men wearing the swim trunks scored better on them than the bulky sweater clan — likely because they were more comfortable. The women wearing the swimsuits fared worse on the test than their well-covered, baggy sweater-wearing cohorts, with researchers concluding that they were too self-conscious to do well on the test.

Which does beg an important question when it comes to kids: comfort. My own 12-year-old daughter, an athlete, says she loves wearing performance leggings because they allow her to go about her day without thinking about how uncomfortable jeans or skirts are — she feels so confined or awkward wearing those. Leggings are perfect for both gym and class. For her they have nothing to do with attracting attention, and as a card-carrying yoga-pants devotee, I totally believe her.

So I allow her to wear her skin tight leggings — but only when paired with a long T-shirt or baggy sweatshirt or sweater that extends mid-thigh (which is a great look anyway). This shows her that modesty isn’t simply about the clothes you wear, but how you wear them and what you project to the world while wearing them. And that, as in many things in life, there’s usually a good compromise.

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