Students across the country are protesting their school’s dress codes. A recent controversy in Illinois was sparked when Haven Middle School administrators decided that female students are no longer allowed to wear shorts, leggings, or yoga pants, because those articles of clothing might be “too distracting” for their male peers. Similarly, some students at Charleston County School for the Arts have started wearing Scarlet “A”s to class to protest the unequal enforcement of their schools dress code. The code includes rules like, “no shoulder straps less than two fingers in width,” but these regulations are mainly enforced on female students, and larger women are targeted more often than their thinner peers. Last year a junior high school in Northern California banned tight pants to “prevent girls from distracting the boys,” and more recently, a Boston-area high school enacted the same policy. These are not isolated incidents; all across the country, school dress codes can be found that regulate girls’ hemlines and necklines without putting equal restrictions on boys’ clothing.
These dress codes typically hypersexualize appropriate parts of women’s bodies, such as their knees or shoulders, and assume that this sexualization is the fault of the girl rather than the fault of the person sexualizing her. Further, the view that boys lose the ability to study when they encounter girls in tight pants is utterly heteronormative, and reinforces the notion that men cannot control their sexual impulses—nor should they be expected to. Teaching girls that they must protect themselves from being ogled, rather than teaching boys to stop objectifying women, sends girls the message that their bodies are an invitation for sexual aggression unless they cover up. Not only does it buy into the myth that girls’ bodies are inherently problematic, but it also reduces boys to animalistic sex fiends with zero self-control. It’s an insult to all parties, and perpetuates misogyny.
These dress codes are ostensibly designed to create a more productive learning environment, but their enforcement often results in girls losing time in the classroom. When a girl is sent home from school because her shorts are “too short” or her pants are “too tight,” she is being told that hiding her body is more important than her education. She is being told that making sure the boys have a “distraction-free” environment is more important than her learning. In a way, she is being told that the boys are more entitled to an education than she is.
The lack of gender-neutrality in dress codes is also an issue because these rules penalize gender non-conforming students. For example, a 14-year-old boy in Florida was suspended in 2013 for wearing make-up, and in 2012, an Alabama teen wore a tuxedo for her graduation photo, so her photo was pulled from the yearbook. At Buchanan High School in Clovis, CA, the dress code stipulates that male students’ hair cannot be longer than “the mid-point of a standard stand-up shirt collar.” This dress code also considers earrings “not appropriate for males,” and describes miniskirts and dresses as garments “acceptable for females.” These cissexist rules prompted students to protest by showing up to school in articles of clothing stereotypically worn by the opposite gender. Suppressing students’ right to self-definition and expression is not conducive to a healthy learning environment; these dress codes enforce a narrow view of professionalism rooted in strict gender norms.
Dress codes also become an issue when they impose a white-centric view of respectability. Many dress codes punish students for their religious or cultural dress or appearance. Recently a Navajo kindergartener was sent home for having long hair, and a Rastafarian teenager in Louisiana was suspended for not cutting his religiously sanctioned dreadlocks. In Durham County Public Schools students from the group Young Women of Excellence are protesting for their right to wear traditional African gele head wraps. All across the country Muslim girls have to fight for their right to wear headscarves. Horizon Science Academy in Ohio took uniformity entirely too far when they essentially banned natural African-American hairstyles. Their dress code holds, “Afro-puffs and small twisted braids are NOT permitted.” An afro-puff is basically afro-texture hair put into a ponytail. By banning a natural hairstyle, the school is implicitly expecting that African-American kids chemically process their hair. To put it in different terms, this would be like telling white girls that in order to wear pigtails they have to dye their hair a different color. Ultimately, these dress codes do not create equality; they suppress individuality, cultural expression, and the diverse backgrounds students offer their school.
Dress codes are supported based on erroneous beliefs of what they can accomplish, but there is almost no proof that dress codes have the intended effect of creating equality, safety, or a better learning environment—in fact, they tend to do the opposite. School rules should not be based on sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, or racist ideologies, and punishments should not disproportionately impact students of marginalized identities.