As the weather continues to improve we can begin putting our parkas, heavy sweaters, and fleece-lined leggings into storage as our warmer-weather wardrobe gets to come back into rotation. That is, unless you’re one of the many thousands of middle or high school students expected to follow a dress code.
Dress codes are sexist and promote rape culture.
Dress codes are meant to be a fairly innocuous set of rules set in place by the faculty to set guidelines for appropriate apparel for school. In theory this is good, and should keep students from coming to school in clothing that could serve as a distraction for themselves or other students. The priority of school, after all, should be learning.
So why do most dress codes seem to enforce the idea that learning is only a priority for the male students?
In schools, girls are told repeatedly by faculty members that their appearance or clothing is a distraction. I’ve heard accounts of girls being yanked out of class because of visible bra straps, or mandatory girls-only assemblies during school hours to hear lectures by the faculty condemning the wearing of shorts in 100-degree heat.
Because wearing clothing that shows any skin or hint of an undergarment serves only to distract boys from learning, apparently.
This is a problem for two main reasons. First, it tells girls that their education is not as important as their male counterparts because female students are being forced to miss class time in order to better the male students’ learning environment. A rebuttal to this claim might be, “Well, girls shouldn’t wear something that breaks the rules if they don’t want to miss class.” This would be a fair point, except the rule being broken exists solely to protect the delicate attention span of the boys in the first place. Moreover, the rules themselves are often double-sided; for instance, the visible bra strap example from earlier. Yes, bras are undergarments and yes, undergarments are supposed be covered by clothing, yet I’ve never once heard of a boy being sent to the principal for distracting female students with visible boxer shorts worn under low-sagging pants.
It’s not even limited to high schools and teenagers. A Georgia kindergarten student was changed at school — without her mother’s notification or permission — because her skort was too short and considered distracting. “Who, exactly, is distracted by a kindergartener’s skort?” asked vlogger and YouTube personality Laci Green in a recent video. “According to hundreds of U.S. schools, it’s boys and perhaps even male faculty. That’s…uncomfortable.”
Green goes on to quote inappropriate comments made by school administrators to girls whose clothing was deemed problematic:
“You know, not all dresses look good on certain body types.” – Capistrano Valley High School Principal
“You shouldn’t be showing off your curves. Don’t you want a husband someday?” – Stuyvestant High School Official
“The school’s dress code violators are skanks.” – Oklahoma High School Superintendent
“Boys are bad, and that kind of shirt is going to cause them to misbehave.” – Lakeland High School Official
This leads us to the second main problem. Dress codes perpetuate the belief that the female body is inherently sexual regardless of context, and that a girl is not entitled to respect of any kind if her skin is exposed.
For girls, this often leads to self-objectification, which is when they only see themselves through the lens of the male gaze and forgo their own wants and needs in favor of male desires. Unsurprisingly, self-objectification has been linked to depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, and it doesn’t help that most dress code rules go hand in hand with body shaming.
Additionally, this teaches boys that it’s acceptable to be disrespectful and misbehave around girls wearing more revealing clothing. Boys learn that they’re not responsible for their actions; rather, it’s the fault of the girls for dressing that way.
Normalizing this “boys will be boys” behavior is one of the most common ways society lays the groundwork for harassment, sexual assault, and victim blaming.
To be clear, having guidelines is not the problem. The problem is that the guidelines disproportionately target girls, blames girls for distracting boys, and sexualizes the students — most of whom are still minors. Furthermore, punishing a girl for wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt with anything from public humiliation to detention, suspension, or even expulsion, while allowing a boy wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt to carry on unencumbered is actually illegal under Title IX. That’s right, the way most schools are enforcing their dress code can be construed as gender discrimination.
I was privileged enough to attend a high school that didn’t have a dress code — it had a uniform. Uniform-issue shorts and skirts worn by male or female students that did not sport a hemline falling within three inches of the knee resulted in a $10 uniform fine. Shirts that were not tucked in, bore the old school logo, or were not uniform-issue resulted in a $10 uniform fine. Visible undershirts and undershirts that were not white resulted in a $10 uniform fine. Pants, shorts, skirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, and fleeces that were discolored, had holes, or were not uniform-issue resulted in a $10 uniform fine. Three consecutive fines earned a detention.
Granted, some faculty enforced the uniform more than others — a particular Algebra teacher on the 3rd floor springs to mind — but the rules were fair and equally enforced for all students. Classes weren’t disrupted in the event of an untucked shirt, and no one was ever sent home to change for wearing American Eagle pants instead of the horrible uniform ones made of navy blue cardboard.
While uniforms and monetary fines are an extreme and improbability for many schools to adopt, this is the mentality all schools need to embrace: rules that apply and are enforced for all students, regardless of gender. Otherwise, they’re guilty of violating Title IX, perpetuating rape culture, and just generally being shitty to their female students.
Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week!
Also, check out Laci Green’s video here. She rocks!