I am a minister, and I know that many religions have clothing requirements and that many people have ideas of what can and cannot be worn in any church. Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches are pretty liberal, and we always say we care more that you are in the pew, not what you are wearing in the pew. At the same time, there are a lot of unspoken clothing rules even in UU churches that we definitely judge each other over. (Sorry to break that news to the UUs who do not know.)
I respect other religions and their values. If I were staying with a Mormon family, I would cover my shoulders and legs and not wear anything they believe is inappropriate. When I preach in church, I dress a bit more conservatively, although I have preached in a sleeveless dress, which is apparently taboo (as discussed in the post You Have the Right to Bare Arms (But Not in the Pulpit). I also did a fairy-tale themed service and preached in a Belle costume from Beauty and the Beast, which was pretty stinking fantastic! One of my best services ever. I even got a few “thank you” notes after that one. I do push the boundaries that some people set up on ministers, even in the pulpit, but I am in a faith that does not have dress restrictions based on religious belief. In fact, UUism focuses on deeds, not creeds, and thus dress codes do not really fit in our faith (even though some people have dress codes in their own minds).
For a lot of people, myself included, religious dress codes have been incredibly shaming and heart- and spirit-breaking. This is why I am not generally a proponent of dress codes. However, I also believe that the negative aspects of dress codes have something to do with the ways in which they are framed. The biggest issue I see with most dress codes is that they are framed in a way that if you dress outside of the code, you are dirty and bad, and the family or faith is ashamed of you. As adults, we get to choose to be a part of that faith and that code, and we can try to differentiate ourselves from that dysfunctional teaching. (If we can’t, then that body shame follows us for life and is very destructive.)
However, I have a ten-year-old son. Kids don’t get a choice in what faith or culture they are raised, and they don’t get a choice in how we frame dress and religion to them. It is our job, as responsible and loving adults, to frame it correctly for them. All parents, even the most liberal of us, have rules on behavior that we tell our kids they need to follow. We may teach our kids that we do not hit other people. We might teach them by talking about how hitting hurts others and is not a good way to express anger or frustration. We can talk about how anger is a real emotion, nothing to be ashamed of, and that we can learn how to act responsibly around that emotion. OR we can tell them “Only bad people hit,” which is a highly shaming message and in no way helps them understand why they feel an urge to hit or what to do when they are angry or frustrated.
One day, I had a conversation with my son when we were buying him new clothes. I wanted him to buy some “nice” clothes — meaning something other than gym shorts and exercise t-shirts. Maybe he could even wear a pair of non-athletic shoes once in a while? He did not want “fancy” clothes, and I kept pressuring him. I was insisting on him buying clothes he hated. Clothes that did not feel like “him.” Clothes that did not express his identity or personality. I was getting upset about it and I really had to take a step back and ask myself why.
I was doing it because I had to fulfill my own need of having a child who looked “appropriate and nice” all the time. For God’s sake, I’m a minister, and my kid must look perfect or people will judge! As though what he wore were a reflection on me. That is WAY too much dysfunction to put onto a kid! Now, every time he grows out of clothes, I go to Target and get a bunch of gym shorts and exercise shirts in a size bigger and call it a day. If we need “dress clothes” for a special occasion, we will get some, but even then I don’t force him to wear things he hates. For my ordination, he wore black pants and a sport coat, with a plaid Power Rangers button down shirt and tennis shoes. He was the cutest, happiest kid ever, and the best part was that he got to be himself on this most important day in my life. Why would I want anything else?
If a dress code – in a faith, school, or culture – is used as a way for those with power to oppress others, then it is a problem. I believe the dress codes of many faiths are a way to oppress people, particularly women. However, there are always exceptions, and I won’t say that all dress codes are bad and shaming. For instance, look at how this young adult talks about a dress code in her blog post Modest is Hottest: The Evolution of Mormon Fashion. She does not feel that the way she dresses is not who she is. She does not feel restricted by her faith’s dress code. She does not seem to think that her worth is a result of her clothing. While I don’t agree with the theological reasoning behind the dress code, it is clear that she has a healthy relationship with the dress code and does not find it shaming. If a faith can enable kids and adults to be comfortable in the dress code and not feel it is shaming, then go for it.
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