Rethinking Camp Dress Codes

Dress (Code) for Success

Natalie Roberts-Day is the Associate Executive Director at Camp Kitaki in Lincoln, Nebraska. She's a Go Camp Pro member and occasional GCP blogger as well, which makes her even more awesome. We hope you enjoy this fresh take on dress codes at camp as much as we did!

Like many of you, I frequently remind my staff that they should rethink any rule that they can't explain the "why" behind. A few years ago I sat down to review our policies, and when I came to our dress code I found myself struggling with the “why?” behind it. Sure, there were plenty of reasons I could give to justify banning tank tops that have armpit holes so large they leave little to the imagination, but most of those reasons have a lot more to do with external perception than the actual experience of the person wearing the shirt. I also found it very problematic that the dress code tended to be enforced very differently depending on body type, age, and gender. I dreaded conversations about dress code infractions.

In the end we settled on a much more simplified (and much easier to justify) set of guidelines centered around two tenets: clothing must be safe and practical for the activity, and must reflect the values of our camp.

Safe and Practical for the Activity

At the barn, everyone needs to wear jeans. At the challenge course, we want longer shorts so the harness doesn’t chafe your legs. The right footwear could mean the difference between a pleasant hike and a trip to the ER. A nasty sunburn might mandate a t-shirt while swimming. But how will the experience be impacted if a camper (or staff member, but we will get to that in a moment) wears spaghetti strap versus a two finger strapped tank top?

I am aware that some will argue it could be a distraction, but I think that argument belittles the intelligence of some of our campers (most often adolescent boys who are taught that they are not responsible for their behavior) and sends a detrimental message to other campers (most often adolescent girls who learn to feel shame or blame for how others respond to their bodies). I won’t delve too deeply into the topic here, but there is plenty of great research out there on how dress codes play a role in supporting harmful attitudes about body image and relationships and if you are interested I would encourage you to continue reading.

A fair number of years ago when I was a part-time unit leader at Kitaki we had some twin 13 year old girls who were infamous for their merciless side comments about the appearance of other campers. I had to speak with them frequently about their behavior. But rather than use the times when they were making better choices to build up our relationship and get to know them better, I harped on them about their clothing choices: you can’t wear shorts that short, those tank top straps do not cover your bra, etc.

Inevitably they would argue and ask for justification for the rules (with good reason, I can say looking back) and I ended up having to take a break from the conversation because I was so frustrated with what I perceived as a petulant refusal to follow camp’s rules. I see now that, in spite of me being in the right with the other re-directions, in this case they were looking for a solid “why?” and I really didn’t have a good answer.

We no longer worry about policing what campers wear, unless it is going to cause some sort of problem for the activity they are about to participate in. This has worked great for me not only because I am always prepared with a “why?” if I need to ask someone to change their attire (you can’t ride/climb/etc. without changing), but also because I recognize that what is appropriate in the fashion world is constantly in flux. I could spend a lot of time and energy pondering whether leggings with no other layer are acceptable to wear out in public, or I could ask myself “Is this person going to be able to complete the activity in a comfortable manner wearing this item?” It allows me to focus on the many other issues that require my attention, and also keeps me and my staff from having to have uncomfortable and potentially shaming conversations with the youth we are trying so hard to build up.

As for staff, our rules are exactly the same. We ask that everyone wears a one piece swimsuit or trunks, but not because we worry about them showing too much skin, but because at our camp kids are allowed to use the staff as human jungle gyms in the pool so long as they have obtained and continue to have the counselor’s consent. A bikini top is just not conducive to that level of activity.

Reflect the Values of Camp

Our staff and campers know life at Kitaki is not like a scene from Wet Hot American Summer. We do not promote or tolerate drug or alcohol use, nor do we tolerate messages that tear others down. On the rare occasion that a camper shows up to flag in a shirt which proudly declares “Broncos Suck,” it is an opportunity to teach empathy and an awareness of those around you, rather than what felt like an unavoidable tearing down of the camper’s choice. Again, a much easier conversation for everyone involved.

This part of the conversation about attire is also the reason we don’t have staff running around in tube tops and pants with huge holes in the crotch. We talk to the staff about presenting themselves in such a way that any parent who walks up would feel comfortable entrusting their child with them. We ask that staff wear a camp polo on opening day to encourage this trust right from the start, and we also remind staff that they are role models for the kids and so should dress in a way that supports this responsibility. We remind staff that at camp we want kids to focus on who they want to be and not what they look like, and talk about how the amount of time you spend getting ready in the morning impacts how that message of self-love resonates (or doesn’t) with the campers rather than tell someone they can’t wear makeup.

We have found that simplifying our dress code has helped our staff think more critically about their expectations for campers and how their campers perceive the staff. It has also eliminated some potentially shaming and most certainly uncomfortable interactions between our staff and campers (and between the directors and staff). Whatever you determine makes the most sense for your camp’s policies, I hope that you are able to provide a “why?” that you feel good about standing behind. Here’s to a great summer!