If you have attended public school or have a daughter in public school, you know the struggles of school dress codes. And with summer on the way, it’s just a matter of time before girls are sent home because they are wearing seasonally appropriate clothing deemed inappropriate for school. And for what reasons? To not be a “distraction?” It’s ridiculous, and it’s time that these biased dress codes be tossed out of schools.
Most schools put dress code policies in place, intending to create safe, positive learning environments in schools. For the most part, dress codes are designed to ensure students focus more on learning than what they’re wearing and create a more serious and professional learning experience. But too many policies have the opposite effect and end up shaming students, robbing them of instructional time, and disproportionately targeting female students.
In the U.S., many public school dress codes have gender-specific policies. And it’s no surprise that female-specific policies account for a disproportionate number of attire rules. School dress codes often ban clothing articles such as leggings, shorts, yoga pants, spaghetti straps, tank tops, and more.
And as summer temperatures rise, many girls have to forgo attire appropriate for high temperatures and sweltering classrooms and sacrifice their comfort to comply with dress codes. I mean, god forbid they are a “distraction” to other students by baring too much leg, shoulder, or collar bone (insert sarcasm and eye rolls). And frankly, we should not be teaching girls to sacrifice their comfort for the “benefit” of others.
It’s no surprise that controversial and sexist enforcement of dress code policies repeatedly makes the news. In Palm Beach, Florida, a Forest Hill High School student was removed from her classes for wearing torn jeans. The student’s mother stated that a school official lectured her to consider male classmates’ hormones when dressing. Because the revealing of a knee cap will make male students incapable of controlling themselves and, of course, it will be all her fault.
In another reported incident, a high school principal in South Carolina actually told students in a school assembly that wearing leggings to school makes them look fat. She stated, “I’ve told you this before, I’m going to tell you this now, unless you are a size zero or two and you wear something like that, even though you’re not fat, you look fat.” Because it only makes sense that body shaming is the best way to ensure that students comply with ridiculous dress code rules like no leggings.
I remember getting stopped in the hallway by school staff and being asked to show my shorts or skirts were the appropriate length many times over in middle school and high school. I even had the length of my tank top strap measured to ensure that it was at least two inches wide. And I recall many other female classmates being called out in class and the hallways and sent to the office for various dress code infractions. It’s embarrassing and ridiculous.
At no point should anyone be body shamed or blamed for being a “disruption” because of something they are wearing. It sends a not-so-subtle message to female students that their bodies are a distraction. And male students get the message that those wearing “inappropriate” clothing are “asking for” a response. Not to mention, gender-specific policies are discriminatory against gender non-conforming and transgender students. And in this day and age, schools need to be sending a different message to all students.
Laura Bates, co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, shared with the Atlantic, “I think we live in a culture that’s so used to looking at issues of harassment and assault through the wrong end of the telescope.” Bates continues, “[I]t would be really refreshing to see somebody turn it around and focus on the kind of behavior that is directed at girls rather than to police girls’ own clothing.”
This is an issue long overdue for a change. Instead of further perpetuating a victim-blaming mindset onto young students, dress code policies should actively teach everyone to respect each other. There is no reason in this day and age for school districts to have gender-specific dress codes. A good policy should apply to everyone equally…no double standards. If girls can’t wear tank tops, neither can boys; if girls can’t show collarbones, neither can boys. If girls can wear knee length skirts, so can boys.
Should there be clear rules on what students can and can’t wear to school? Absolutely. It is important that students learn that different attire is appropriate for different settings. The problem comes into play when girls are unfairly targeted, punished, or publicly shamed for violating dress codes.
Schools should be safe and affirming spaces for all students, not places of sexual objectification or body shaming. And students and parents are rightfully pushing back against school dress codes. The good news is that some schools are stepping up to fix the problem, updating their dress codes to make them more reasonable and equitable.
Schools can start with getting input from parents and students on dress code policies. It will help to not only get various perspectives but also gain more buy-in from all parties involved. Also, dress code violators should be addressed privately, and the punishment should fit the crime. There are much bigger things that students should be suspended for that don’t include ripped jeans or visible bra straps.
And most importantly, school dress code policies should apply to all student groups equally. Unfairly targeting students with gender-based dress code policies only further enforces archaic ideas of gender and sexualizes young teen girls. And it needs to stop.