Dress Codes: A Study in Sexism

I remember vividly the time that, as a sophomore at a conservative Christian college, a friend of mine mentioned that I should consider changing how I dressed. He was concerned that my mid-thigh skirt and v-neck sweater might cause my male classmates to “stumble.” I was taken aback and then completely incensed. It was such a double standard! No one was worried about my spiritual path with the never-ending parade of college guys playing Frisbee golf with their shirts off.

Don’t think this was some isolated incident on a college campus 15 years ago. This attitude is prevalent throughout our society. You can see it in the Brock Turner rape case, the multiple sex assault coverups and scandals  at universities across the nation, and President-elect Donald Trump’s degrading comments about women, to name a few. You can also witness it in our schools, where it manifests itself every day via sexist dress codes.

Gendered dress code problems are abundant nationwide; I’ve chosen three examples here to highlight different aspects of the controversy. First, there’s Pinellas District in Florida, which banned cheerleaders from wearing their uniforms to class even though the uniforms were school-issued. Kenilworth Junior High School in California barred leggings for girls because the boys were getting “too distracted.” A student in Clay County School District had to wear a “dress code violation” outfit in order to avoid an in-school suspension. In case you thought you read any of those wrong, go ahead and give them a google. Sadly, you’ll find many related stories of girls being subjected to “inspections” and getting pulled out of class, suspended, and shamed. (While I’ll focus on gendered dress codes in this post, there is also a significant issue with schools banning hairstyles that are popular with Black students and religious headwear, particularly for Muslim students.)

Some people don’t see why it’s such a big deal, so let’s analyze why these dress codes are problematic. When a student is suspended or sent to detention, she is removed from her learning environment. Any time a student misses out on learning opportunities, we should be concerned, but especially when it’s for a minor infraction (which perhaps shouldn’t be considered an infraction at all). When a dress code requires that girls where one thing and boys another (as at prom or graduation), it forces students to conform to gender norms. This is inappropriate for all children, but makes things very difficult for transgender students if they are not allowed to dress according to their gender identity or if they identify as nonbinary. Some of the punishments, such as having to put on baggy pants or Bermuda shorts, are designed to be humiliating. This type of consequence is totally counterproductive to raising girls who are body positive (which is essential to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being). Finally, it sends a dangerous message. To girls, it says that they are nothing more than a distraction and that harassment is their fault, which is evocative of the ridiculous and harmful “she was asking for it” argument. To boys, it says that they are incapable of controlling themselves in the company of women, issuing them a “get out of jail free” card for bad behavior. Essentially, sexist dress codes perpetuate rape culture.

There are certainly arguments to be had for enforcing dress codes. In many ways, going to school is like training for life in the grown-up world. Lots of workplaces have dress codes in place. Some restaurants require certain attire. I understand that, and I support dress codes to the extent that they protect the safety of students. I also plan to teach my daughter about dressing appropriately for different environments, but that’s my job as a parent. We’re talking about public schools here. The issue is not the dress code per se; it’s the fact that it usually only pertains to girls. If the guidelines are only about midriffs, short shorts, bras, and spaghetti straps, that’s not right. If the dress code truly is for all students, then they should be disciplined in the same way. Boys tend to get a slap on the wrist, while girls receive much harsher consequences. When you label girls’ clothing a distraction to boys and remove her, you prioritize his education over hers… and that’s unacceptable.

It’s heartening to see young girls in this country fighting the good fight and pressuring schools to change their ways. Some girls are protesting by wearing the article of clothing in question or, as in Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina, t-shirts with scarlet letters. Others, like high schooler Lauren Wiggins of Canada, have written open letters to their administrators. Some, such as Sofia Pierson of Washington State, have even successfully petitioned their schools to change their dress code and been part of the committee leading that change. Many female students have taken to social media to increase awareness. They often post pictures of themselves in the “inappropriate” outfits, and leave many of us wondering how they could possibly have been deemed offensive.

If you want to change a sexist dress code at your local school, I’ve included some tips geared to your particular role:

Advice for students:  Know your rights. The First Amendment guarantees your right to freedom of expression. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court found that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Research what other students have done (I think Pierson is a great example to follow). You can start a petition, stage a protest, or set up a meeting with the administration or school board. Don’t underestimate the power of social media to increase visibility. Many students have successfully used hashtags to like #IAmNotADistraction, #CropTopDay, and #FreeTheShoulder, to publicize their campaigns.

Special note for transgender students: If your school has a male and female-specific dress code, dressing in accordance with your gender identity is protected. I know this doesn’t help you if you’re nonbinary, but we hear you and will continue to push for gender-neutral policies.

Advice for parents: Know your rights. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees your right to raise your children as you choose. Support your daughter’s efforts and encourage her to engage in respectful dialogue because that’s how you get things done, and to quote FLOTUS, “When they go low, we go high.” You can accompany her to meetings as long as you yourself can keep your cool. If you hit a wall, you can always contact your state’s ACLU. Last year, the ACLU of Idaho intervened when they were alerted to discriminatory dress code standards for graduation. They sent a letter to all Idaho school districts with the following reminder: “Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”

Advice for teachers, administrators, and other school staff: Now is a great time to analyze your current dress code. Perhaps the most important revision is to make your school’s policy gender neutral. Some districts have opted to make dress codes purposefully vague (nixing measurements and two-finger rules). Others have gone simple. Portland’s new dress code requires all students to wear a top, bottom, and shoes and to cover certain body parts. If you’re looking for a model, I highly recommend the Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code. It emphasizes that students be given as much choice as possible in their expression as well as the importance of staff training in the spirit of the dress code, enforcement and consequences, as well as consent and sexual harassment.

I have a daughter now, and it’s my hope that we as a collective community of parents and educators, can give her, and all girls (and all children for that matter) an educational environment in which they can freely express themselves and feel comfortable in their own bodies. After all, that’s kind of a prerequisite for learning! I hope my precious girl will grow up into a woman who, if told that her clothing was causing men to falter, wouldn’t be cowed. No, she would know ignorance on sight, fight back, and go confidently in the direction of her dreams.