The REAL Problem with Dress Codes

Looking back to high school, I try to only remember the good. Being on the Model UN Team, writing and recording original music, going to school games, and cheering on our team from the bleachers are all some of my most cherished memories from those four years. But high school also brings along certain issues that can follow us for the rest of our lives -- peer pressure, severe stress, and the onset of mental illness are just a few of those examples, all of which schools aim to prevent. However, there is one major issue that comes to mind that promotes a culture of sexism, internalized and direct misogyny, and the sexualization of young girls from the day they begin to realize their womanhood. The ever-dreaded dress code.

Being annoyed by and even offended by dress codes is something I think all of us can relate to, especially as women. “Your skirt is too short," “you can’t show your shoulders," and even “cover up your chest” are all phrases that we have become painfully aware of. I don’t know a single girl, either from my hometown or that I have met in college, that didn’t either 1) Get in trouble at school for their choice of clothing, or 2) Struggle to find “appropriate” clothing to avoid being scrutinized for their fashion choices during class time. Being pulled from class to go home and change, being slut-shamed, and even being called out in front of peers are all examples of experiences that young women undergo in an environment where they are supposed to be given expressive freedom and taught that they are worth more than their bodies.

No, I’m not saying that students should be able to run around school in swimsuits and that this will cure gender inequality. It goes deeper than that. Dress codes reinforce the idea that girls need to cover up in order to obtain respect, that we must refrain from dressing a certain way so as to prevent the boys around us from getting distracted. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Every time a girl is sent to the office because her outfit choice is “distracting," the system wins. She loses valuable class time, and although it doesn’t seem like much, it adds up. I understand that there are rules set in place for a reason, but those rules disproportionately target girls, and only girls lose out on their education because of those rules most of the time.

Additionally, dress code regulations that only target girls promote a strong sense of rape culture that is instilled in girls at a very young age. Rape culture, for those who are unaware, is essentially a deep-rooted system of oppression that provides excuses for sexual harassment/violence against women, and “is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” The hypersexualization of the shoulder must end, as it is only one type of shoulder being sexualized.

An issue that was briefly mentioned previously but desperately requires more attention is the idea that women and girls need to dress a certain way to earn respect. This concept could be a whole new article in and of itself. Women and girls don’t need to be well-behaved in terms of their outfit choices in order to become successful, independent, powerful beings. Whether you're wearing a sweater or a crop top, you still have the same body underneath. You're still you.

When I decided to write this article, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. The stigma surrounding a woman's body and unpacking the dangers and overall problematic analysis of dress codes was too heavy a burden to bear on my own. So, I did what any modern, Gen-Z writer would do. I set out to social media. I composed an Instagram story asking for anyone to write me with their own stories, or just ideas and feedback concerning the dress code crisis. Here are some of the amazing responses I received (Note: I was given explicit permission to post these responses, as well as instruction on whether or not to leave the submissions anonymous.)

 

“When I was in high school we had a dress code, but it wasn’t strictly enforced for most of the time we were there. So unless you were wearing something super inappropriate, it was fine. But in February of my senior year, they suddenly got really strict with the dress code, and when a bunch of girls came into school in leggings, they got sent home to change. Most of them were seniors who only had four classes a day anyways. A few days later, a bunch of senior guys wore chubbies to school, and none of them got sent home or in trouble at all. It was infuriating.”

  • Anonymous

“When discussing hypersexualization, black girls are sexualized EVEN more than other girls simply because we tend to develop faster, and (mostly) men see that as an opportunity to enforce stricter dress codes on black girls than on other groups of girls. For example, there have been cases of teachers saying a black girl can’t wear leggings, but then they let a white girl wear them.”

  • Anonymous

“Dress codes should not affect education. Men should be taught to not let it affect their education and not just see women as objects, and not to see 'shoulders' and get distracted. They should be taught 'she’s my classmate and that’s it.' She is not an object or a scene to look at and get distracted. She is your classmate, your friend, your lab partner, your groupmate. Clothes should not define who she is. She is comfortable in her own skin, and saying that her clothing is 'distracting to the boys' just shows how we are teaching our boys.”

  • Elijah Obstler

“Hi, I wanted to add a story from high school. I went to a Christian school with a strict dress code, but it was mostly enforced for the girls. My grand marcela got sent home because she had ripped jeans with patches on them. But the guys couldn’t wear chubbies, and even though they all did, they were never sent home, and the only discipline they ever got was maybe a write-up. We’d also have to get every dress approved before every dance because 'the male teachers and chaperones would look up it if we went down'.”

  • Scarlett Howard

“So first off, it’s not very effective sending girls home for such a ridiculous reason as revealing shoulders.”

  • Anonymous

 

These are only a few of the stories I have heard in my lifetime about how dress codes have disproportionately affected girls, and thus negatively impacted their self-image, self-worth, and perception of their existence in the educational and future career aspects of their lives. Women and girls are not objects, we are human. Treat us as such.