On Adolescence and Underwear

It is very easy for someone who works exclusively in a church environment to become culturally isolated from the “real world,” so I make it a point to read extensively outside my field. I want to learn what others are thinking and how they experience life.

So, I perused a recent article in The Atlantic written by a middle-school teacher extremely concerned about the ways the girls in her classroom dressed for school.

She writes, “I hate having to defend my right not to see a girl’s underwear. . . I hate having to worry that being able to see a girl’s underwear will so addle the boys’ brains that they will be unable to concentrate in science class.”

Now, this makes perfect sense to me.  Learning to dress appropriately, showing respect both for self and others, should be part of the maturing process.

It was the comments on this article that opened my eyes to differing views. Radically differing views. Apparently, a fair number of people in this world think this teacher is way off base. Coming down strongly on the side of freedom of expression and support of individual choice, they see few or no problems for either the girls or boys when dressing provocatively in those extremely turbulent years of early adolescence.

Keep in mind that I reared three sons, no daughters. While I insisted they dress decently, there were minimal protests and I have no first-hand knowledge of the art of purchasing clothing for girls. I’ve heard of but never witnessed emotional meltdowns when a tween or young teen is told she must wear more modest clothes–and thereby possibly threatening her very survival in the eyes of her peers.

I also remember my own tense teen years as I sought my independence, but was nowhere near ready mentally or emotionally for it.  The transition from child to adult is extremely tough for both youth and parents, with never-ending and utterly exhausting battles around every corner.

With that in mind, I was still dismayed that multiple commentators could see no problems with such revealing clothing in a school setting.

I don’t get this. Academics have become an increasingly difficult setting for boys. Their bodies scream, “I need to move around and expel some of my excess energy” while the opportunities for needed movement shrink. Instead, pressure to sit still and learn quietly increase.

Additionally, during these years both boys and girls face hormonal storms that threaten to remove any possibility of rational response from their immature minds.

Why then, is it apparently OK to flash underwear for the world to see? Both boys and girls are guilty here.

We’re talking school, folks. Not the beach, not parties, not hanging out time. School. That place where heroes–that is how I define ANYONE who teaches for a living, and especially those who teach pre-teens and younger adolescents–perform superhuman feats hourly by pounding some essential knowledge into those hormone-addled brains.

Why, in the name of all that is decent and reasonable, would parents do ANYTHING to make that task more difficult?

I understand the concerns expressed. Commentators fear females are going to be blamed as provocateurs when sexually assaulted. Additionally, few would wish that we become like those who keep girls and women cloistered lest the just the sight of them incite the helpless male to irresistible lust.

I still ask: is it possible to agree on a general school-day dress code, without having to go to uniforms (which do have much to say for them) that honors both the need for personal expression and the need for respect, both for self and others?

Or, am I just too caught in a world that teaches at its core that all humans have a responsibility to treat others the way they want to be treated themselves that I am hopelessly out of touch with the “real world.”

10 thoughts on “On Adolescence and Underwear

  1. Just read your article and all of the comments. OK, I teach at the Methodist Children’s Home school and I teach high school students. We have a dress code, but it allows for expression by the students. We still have to enforce it everyday with both boys and girls showing underwear. They have home parents and staff that go with them to purchase clothes, so they have clothes that fit properly, but they choose to wear them improperly. Some also purchase things while on home visits, and they don’t always make the best choices. As far as the boys learning differently from girls, I agree with that. My problem is that all of my students learn differently from those in a regular public school. All of my students are considered ” At Risk” and all have issues. In fact, I long for a day where all I have to deal with is what the student is wearing.

    As for how do we teach them to value their bodies as temples, well one way is to model it for them with our own dress. When you have adults wearing very showy shirts pants and skirts and both men and women are showing underwear and we think it is sexy and OK, then we are sending the wrong message to our youth.

    On the whole, I think we do an excellent job at the school of teaching all students both boys and girls. Do we have the solution to all of our problems such as dress code, drug use, fights, relationships and other so called “Drama”? Maybe not everyday, but we give it all we have each and everyday. Bottom line, we do our best to educate them as well as teaching them social skills along with life skills. In short, we try and prepare them for life in a very scary and over the top world. And we offer hope to ones that at one time were hopeless.

    I invite you and your readers to come see what is possible. Come visit us in Waco so you can tell your part of Texas about the Methodist Home and our school where we make a difference in the lives of “At Risk Youth”.


  2. I am blessed that we chose to send my son to an all boys high school. Having grown up in the coed public schools, I realize the experience is simply not what it was. I know it is unpopular to say, but boys and girls learn differently, are good at different things at different stages in their development and have quite opposite needs at times.

    The guys at my son’s school are not worried about looking good for a girl. They are required to wear a coat and tie to class (tie selection is the key to expression…), they have a dress code and… they live with it. The focus is on education and the folks that work there know they are dealing with guys and structure class length and activity appropriately. Yes, he misses some social interaction that he would get at a coed school, but his church experience and a couple of extracurriculars have become his coed groups.

    He also does not have any teachers who are ‘boy-phobic’… and don’t kid yourself if you don’t think there isn’t a rather substantial female bias in the structure of education. In middle school, several parents of boys had several teachers tell us that ‘if the boys could pay more attention like the girls in class, and be less vocal, it would be much more conducive to the class learning experience…’

    Parents who say that displaying underwear and sexually attractive clothing is part of ‘self expression’ are lazy. It is hard to set limits for a child. It is tough to enforce rules instead of being a best buddy. The easiest job in the world is being a bad parent. The toughest job is caring enough to continue to say ‘where do you think you are going dressed like that?’ when it is so easy to say ‘whatever…’.

    What does this have to do with our faith? Our Father never throws up His hands and says “Whatever, Don… Whatever…” Jesus gave us the parable of the shepherd of the flock and the single lost sheep. The shepherd did not say ‘Whatever…’ – he did the hard work of finding the lost and bringing them back. We need to do the same… and we need to be fearlessly joyful as we do it.

    The number one addiction for which people join 12 step groups now is sexual addiction in its various forms – men, women and teen boys and girls… We can’t be lackadaisical about this.


    1. I really appreciate this perspective. I agree–there is much bias against boys in school these days. They are not girls, they are wired differently. We’re setting our young men up for failure and it seems that hardly anyone see this. I don’t even know where to start addressing the problem, but I think the church needs to.


  3. One of the joys of having a son in an all boys high school is the knowledge that they are focused on school and the people who work there know that they are dealing with boys. I don’t doubt that there are social options that are available at coed schools that are not available at same sex high schools. However, we’re talking about education


  4. I was raised to believe that showing your underwear, any part of your underwear, in public was a sign of a complete lack of class. Whether or not that is true, I do believe more attention should be paid to the ways we dress. I understand the need for personal expression. I understand the need for independence. However, children and adolescents need appropriate boundaries. It has been proven they thrive within appropriate boundaries. I believe that in a school setting, in a church setting, in any public setting, really, these boundaries need to be set and enforced. Unfortunately, in my experience, the parents who allow their children to dress in a sexually provocative manner just do not want to take the trouble to enforce the appropriate boundaries. I’m afraid that we are fighting a losing battle with this one.


    1. I hope not. I keep thinking that with enough attention brought to issues like these, parents will begin to see their responsibility here. But then, I’ve long been known for my tendency to tilt at windmills . . .


  5. Having spent all of my adult life in education, I can say you are exactly correct. When I was in high school I rebelled against the dress code. I know understand the need for restrictions.


  6. Having spent time at the Food Court at NorthPark watching the parade of young teens go by, both boys and girls, I totally agree with your comments!


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