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N.C. school system considers restriction on skinny jeans, aims to stop bullies from body-shaming

Yoga pants on display at a New York store in 2010. (Benjamin Norman/Bloomberg)

A North Carolina school board is considering a new dress code that would prohibit students from wearing skinny jeans or leggings unless they also wear a top or a dress that is long enough to cover their rear ends — or, as the proposed policy puts it, long enough to “cover the posterior area in its entirety.”

Jeannette Nichols, vice chairwoman of the school board in 26,000-student New Hanover County, said that the board was responding to concerns raised by a teacher who had noticed that a female student was teased for wearing leggings.

“She was a bit overweight and she was being bullied and teased,” Nichols told the Wilmington StarNews.

The district publicly introduced the policy on May 3, but then — recognizing that teenagers probably weren’t paying attention to school board meeting agendas — they took to Twitter to ask students for feedback.

Students and parents responded with an avalanche of criticism. Much of the furor accused the district of propagating a sexist view of the world in which girls’ bodies must be covered up in order to protect boys from distraction.

Some wanted to know why the board wasn’t concerning itself with more pressing academic issues, like the condition of schools and textbooks.

Others said the new policy would require them to shell out a lot of money to buy new clothes.

And others wondered why school officials were messing with the dress code, rather than dealing more directly with the problem of classroom bullying.

Dress codes are an age-old point of tension between school districts and students. Sometimes the controversy is over how long a mini-skirt must be in order to be considered appropriate; other times, it’s over whether baseball caps or hoodies are allowed in class. And it’s not unheard of, or even all that uncommon, for school districts to restrict students from wearing leggings or yoga pants.

In August, a Cape Cod technical high school told students they couldn’t wear such tight pants unless they paired them with tops long enough to cover their bottoms. Superintendent Robert Sanborn told that the ban was about getting students ready for the workforce: “Vocational technical education is about preparing people for a career,” he said. “It has to do with employability. We’re passing on the skills that are needed in the workforce, to know that’s not proper attire when you’re at work.”

The New Hanover County school board’s policy committee is scheduled to meet on June 1 to discuss the feedback they’ve received from students and to decide how to proceed, according to district spokeswoman Valita Quattlebaum.

Quattlebaum said the intent of the proposed policy was never to single anyone out, but to “help schools be able to focus on teaching and learning, and not to deal with student dress code concerns.”

She said that the students’ voices are a welcome addition to the debate. “They do have the board’s attention, the board is listening,” Quattlebaum said.

She also said she hopes that schools are using the controversy as a teachable moment to discuss how students can share their views in a constructive and effective way: “I see this as a learning opportunity for our students and teachers to talk about appropriate ways to advocate and to make their voices heard.”