I grew up very poor, living in low income housing, eating reduced lunches, and being raised by a single mom working two jobs just to make ends meet—and still just barely getting by on that.
Graduating high school was a big deal because it meant opportunities and possibilities, and it meant that in so many ways, I had somehow defied the odds that were stacked against me.
I never imagined what I was wearing on graduation day might stand in between me and my future.
It’s something I’ve experienced firsthand.
When I was a senior at my public high school, I wore khaki pants and the nicest pair of shoes I owned to graduation. That’s when an administrator pulled me out of line and said unless I figured something out about a dress in the next few minutes, I wouldn’t be walking across that stage.
I never imagined a dress code could be the deciding factor if I would walk across the stage with my classmates to get the diploma that I earned with hard work.
That diploma that I earned sometimes wearing shorts in my classroom, sometimes wearing a tank top, sometimes even outside in a bathing suit while I studied for midterms.
Yet, on the day I was meant to hold it in my hands, I had to be wearing a dress to get it.
The truth is, I couldn’t afford a new dress. We bought necessities only, and a knee-length dress to wear under a graduation gown that I would wear for only a few hours was not a necessity. Sure, I could have borrowed a dress, but my pride wouldn’t allow me to tell everyone we were too poor to buy one.
So I wore my nicest pair of pants—after all, that’s what the boys were allowed to wear—and I put on the nicest shoes I owned.
But those very pants were going to stop me from walking across that stage to get my diploma unless I rolled them up (which I did), and to this day I’ve never understood why.
Today, years later, we’re still seeing dress codes for girls on graduation day. Dress codes that actually require female students to wear dresses—and it needs to end.
Not every girl wants to wear a dress under her graduation gown. Not every girl can afford a dress to wear under her graduation gown. Some girls may have sensory issues making dresses uncomfortable. Some girls may not even own dresses. Some girls have a million other reasons to choose not to wear them.
The truth is, whatever reasons they have are important—but it’s not as important as the message we are sending to young girls by requiring them to wear dresses under graduation gowns. We’re telling girls what they wear is more important than what they earned—and that is not OK.