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Unraveling the Fabric of Dress Code

Art by Meghan Hoffman

It is no secret that women have bodies. So why are schools trying to control how female students dress?

In the United States, school uniforms were popularized in the 1980s with the intention to unify students and relieve societal pressures regarding how to dress. Studies from 2010 show that upwards of 20% of public schools in the United States require students to wear uniforms, and more than 50% enforce some sort of general dress code. Dress codes are intended to allow students to express themselves while placing limits on inappropriate, offensive, or dangerous articles of clothing. Although dress codes may vary by school or district, there remains a consistent boundary: skimpy outfits, such as short skirts and cropped tops, are almost always heavily regulated or outright forbidden through these codes. Though a level of professionalism in a school environment is indeed necessary, restrictions on spaghetti straps and leggings can go too far in targeting female students. In an article for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Victoria Schantz writes clearly, “Do we have such little faith in our teenage boys that we have to completely obscure young women’s bodies?”

Female students are charged with dress code violations more frequently than male students. This is for two reasons: first, dress codes target clothing traditionally worn by girls, such as skirts, while not requiring boys’ shorts to be of a certain length. Secondly, boys who break dress code experience far more leniency, as shown in the outpouring of social media posts on the subject. Students and parents alike protest these injustices online, which can range from humiliating comments by teachers to suspension. When a Palm Beach student was suspended and told “she needed to consider the guys in her class and their hormones when choosing her wardrobe” by an administrator, her mother protested on Facebook. The student in question’s offense? Ripped jeans. Schools forget to consider how policing dress code can lead to students losing valuable classroom time: students can be sent to the head of school’s office for the majority of a class, or even be sent home to change. In their formative years, boys are taught that they can get away with breaking the rules, which are built for their benefit, and girls are taught that dressing a certain way will inevitably lead to punishment.

How does this connect to the larger problem of rape culture?

Rape culture includes, but is not limited to, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and objectification. This sounds eerily similar to what many female students have faced at their schools. Controlling how female students dress from young ages sends a message that girls are responsible for boys’ actions. Instead of teaching young men in their formative years to control their so-called “sexual urges,” school dress codes teach young women that they should be ashamed of their bodies, that they are “distractions.” Labeling half the student body as “distractions” is trivializing at best, and staunch objectification at worst. Furthermore, punishing female students unfairly is a slippery slope to victim blaming, which states that sexual assault and trauma is a consequence of victims’ choice of clothing or actions and unwittingly defends rapists. In the era of the #MeToo movement, it is increasingly harder to ignore how sexism is sown into societal expectations from youth.

Though unfair punishment is problematic enough, we must remember that dress codes are made for teenagers. By justifying certain regulations as precautions against fellow students and teachers from being distracted by girls, schools label girls as inherently sexual from their preteen years. This, paired with the similar messaging in popular media, creates a normalized hypersexualization of teenage girls within society. Additionally, stereotypes that sexualize Black and Latina women cause female students of color to be disproportionately targeted.

Maybe one day, school officials, measuring skirt lengths and eyeing shoulders, will find the projection of overt sexuality onto teenage girls as preposterous as I do. For now, let us continue to speak out, stand up, and promote change.

Bibliography

Jones, Sasha. “Do School Dress Codes Discriminate Against Girls?” Education Week, 15 Apr. 2020, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/09/05/do-school-dress-codes-discrimate-against-girls.html.

Lakritz, Talia. “18 Times Students and Parents Said School Dress Codes Went Too Far.” Insider, Insider, 14 Feb. 2019, www.insider.com/school-dress-code-rules-controversy-2018-8.

Schantz, Victoria. “We Took on Our School’s Sexist Dress Code, and We Won.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 11 Apr. 2018, www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech/student-speech-and-privacy/we-took-our-schools-sexist-dress-code-and-we-won.

Toppo, Greg. “What to Wear? Schools Increasingly Making That Decision.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 18 Aug. 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/08/18/more-school-uniforms/2662387/.

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