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“You Can’t Wear That”: How School Dress Policies Are Code for Violence

Considering that April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’ve been reflecting a lot these past few weeks about how societal institutions–as well as individual actors–contribute to a culture that objectifies women, asserts control over our bodies, and perpetuates (as well as justifies) our victimization.* Sexual assault is the most extreme manifestation of this culture, yet there are many other more subtle arenas in which in it plays out. In reconnecting the other day with a longtime friend and reminiscing about our middle and high school experiences, I realized that this culture was cemented within our schools’ policies in the form of a dress code.

The dress codes at both schools were rather strict: together, they prohibited students from wearing athletic shorts (unless for P.E. or sports practice), tops with straps skinnier than the width of two fingers, leggings, shorts either greater than six inches above the knee or shorter than fingertip length (my high school later adopted a rule that required shorts to have a six inch inseam–what I joked as being the length of a Subway sandwich), dresses and skirts that violated the six inch/fingertip rule, ripped jeans, low cut tops, and crop tops. Aside from clauses banning hats indoors and t-shirts with profanity or beer advertisements, the dress codes were specifically targeted at restricting what female students could wear so that we wouldn’t “distract the boys.”

A variety of methods were employed to enforce these rules. In sixth grade, the female academic advisors would often force the girls in the mornings to take a ruler and measure from the tips of our shorts to our kneecaps. In seventh and eighth grades, I remember seeing adults pulling girls aside in the hallway to reprimand them for their attire–even requesting at times for them to ask their parents to bring another set of clothes. 

In my all girls high school, the methods were equally as harsh, and especially so when we had the opportunity to interact with boys. For example, before every dance that we attended at our brother schools, the activities coordinator would require all of the students signed up to model their intended outfit for her–with a spin and all. I don’t have access to quantitative data about the exact proportion of rejected outfits, but I can ascertain from the quantity of girls I heard angrily complaining afterwards that it was rather large.

This type of Joan Rivers-less fashion policing is widespread in schools across the country. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of all public schools in the United States (48.8%) enforced a strict dress code during the 2017-2018 school year. And, similarly to the dress codes at the schools that I attended, they mostly target and penalize female students; this is evident in the fact that, in some counties like St. John’s County, FL, 83% of those cited for dress code violations during the 2020-2021 school year (as of February 2021) were girls.

And it’s not like dress code violations are given because the majority of girls at schools with restrictive dress codes are wearing outrageously inappropriate clothing. There are many examples in which female students have been reprimanded for wearing outfits that are perfectly acceptable: an Insider.com article entitled “18 times students and parents said school dress codes went too far” details how they have been pulled out of class or sent home for such egregious offenses as wearing tops that exposed their bra straps, shoulders, and collarbones; sporting leggings, jean shorts, and crewneck t shirts; and being “busty” and “plus-sized.” 

The very same article also includes two stories that involve the pursuit of rather severe measures to apprehend dress code violators. The first involves school officials at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Maryland forcing a seventh grade girl who dared wear ripped jeans to cover the holes in her pants with duct tape. She complied, of course, and ultimately sustained painful burns on her legs. 

The second centers Lizzy Martinez, a junior at Braden High School in Florida at the time of this story. Martinez decided to not wear a bra to school one day to protect her badly sunburned shoulders from further irritation, and she was pulled out of fifth period to speak with the dean. While at the dean’s office, she was informed that a teacher expressed concern about her breasts and nipples causing a distraction for male classmates. Then, after wavering on the line of propriety, the dean tap danced across it when they instructed her to put on another shirt and “jump around” to “see how much [her] breasts moved.” Bounding even further into the land of impropriety, the dean escorted Martinez to the nurses office, where she was asked to place Band- Aids over her nipples. What makes this instance so disgusting–in addition to a grown adult’s humiliation and objectification of a teenage girl–is the school officials’  prioritization of the education of their male students and lack of  consideration for the disruption that missing valuable class instruction would cause for Martinez’s.

While school dress codes unfairly designate the bodies of female students as disruptive and distracting, there are certain female bodies that are perceived as being more distracting than others. A 2018 study directed by the National Women’s Law Center found that, in Washington D.C. public schools, Black girls are 17.8 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, with dress code violations being a major source of this disparity. The authors of this study postulate that, “One reason for this disproportionate punishment is that adults often see Black girls as older and more sexual than their white peers, and so in need of greater correction for minor misbehaviors like ‘talking back’ or wearing a skirt shorter than permitted.” 

These tendencies to hypersexualize and adultify Black girls is nothing new; in fact, a  2017 Georgetown Law Center Report contends that it stems from racist tropes that were created during slavery to dehumanize Black girls and women and justify their exploitation. Thus, because these tropes have been embedded into our social framework for hundreds of years, they appear to be more truthful than truth itself–leading school administrators to project sexual motivations onto their Black female students and to perceive their bodies as being more dangerous and in need of policing. Data from a 2018 study published in the Kappan Journal has also shown that the same stereotypes and vilification are extended to multiracial female students.

Dress code violations also appear to be unevenly enforced across body types. Many female students interviewed in both the National Women’s Law Center study and Kappan study above noted that those with curvier figures (who also tended to be of color) were handed infractions for wearing certain items that their skinnier counterparts were able to get away with.  One of the interviewees named Ayiana observed, “I’ve noticed how my friends have gotten dress coded on stuff because they have bigger hips, bigger breasts, or bigger butt, yet I have worn similar things but I did not get dressed coded because I’m skinnier and it is less noticeable on me.” She went on to astutely comment that “That kind of thing teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies.”

Ayiana’s anecdotes are consistent with my personal experiences. For example, the second day of my junior year, I wore a pair of jean shorts with a four inch inseam (⅔ of a Subway sandwich) to school, because it was 90 degrees outside and they were the only non-athletic shorts that I owned. Before morning assembly began, the headmaster approached me in front of the entire school and asked me to stand up and pull them down. She then questioned whether the shorts that I was wearing had a six-inch inseam, and I responded that they did–despite the fact that both of us knew that I was lying through my teeth. She glanced at my shorts again and suggested with a cold smile that I measure them a second time. 

I would have accepted this reprehension–because I was breaking the dress code after all–if she had “kept the same energy” for the other perpetrators. There was a skinny white girl two seats down from me wearing a crop top that blatantly displayed her midsection, yet she wasn’t the principal’s concern. Neither was the other skinny white girl a few rows back who committed two dress code violations by wearing athletic shorts and shorts with an inseam less than six inches. To be clear, I found both of their outfits to be appropriate, but I opined that it wasn’t coincidental that I, a biracial girl with a curvier frame, was publicly shamed while they were left alone. This incident, aside from discouraging me from wearing shorts to school again, perpetuated Eurocentric beauty standards by illustrating that I wasn’t thin enough or white enough to receive a pass for not following the rules. It also attempted to instill a sense of inferiority within me through the headmaster’s insinuation that I should cover my body because it failed to meet said arbitrary standards.

Since I’ve circled back to the beginning with providing my own accounts to this discourse, I think it’s appropriate to return to my initial argument about how school dress codes are linked with sexual assault, with the primary reason being that they contribute to female sexualization. Considering that dress codes most commonly begin in middle schools, they enforce the idea that girls’ pubescent bodies are inherently sexual and must be hidden as to avoid soliciting the roving eyes of hormonal boys. This idea directly relates to common narratives around sexual assault because female victims are often chastised for their attire and told that they “had it coming” for flaunting their figures. It’s an incredibly simpleminded way of thinking because it negates that we live in a society that sexualizes not only certain types of clothing on a female body but the female body itself, and thus women and girls are still sexualized and harassed irrespective of what we wear.

Along similar lines, dress codes are related to sexual assault in that women and girls are pinpointed as the problem. Rather than assigning culpability to the boys (or even male teachers) ogling at a girl’s collarbone or sinful shoulder, or to the man that leverages his power to coerce a women into non-consensual sexual activities, the female object of attention is ridiculed for attracting male lust and for not protecting herself from harm. The idea implies that a woman or girl has agency in whether she is objectified or violated and the male viewer/attacker does not have a choice in whether he advances on her. It is also precisely why so many female victims of sexual assault struggle with guilt in the aftermath, even though someone else’s decision to take advantage of them is not their fault.

Another way in which dress codes are linked with sexual assault is that they disproportionately target women of color. White society has hypersexualized and exoticized women of color (Black, multiracial, Native American, non-white Latinas, and Asian women) for centuries, and this, as I stated before, has contributed to their bodies being viewed as more erotic–resulting in school officials citing them more often for dress code violations and men assaulting them at higher rates than white women. In addition to hypersexualization increasing the propensity of victimhood for women of color, it, as “Shattering Silence: Exploring Barriers to Disclosure for African American Sexual Assault Survivors” points out, lowers their chances of receiving justice because the perception of their promiscuity obscures their innocence.

Lastly, the existence of dress codes aimed at girls is connected with sexual assault in that they demonstrate the complicity of some women in a system that hurts us all–for example, my female teachers in sixth grade that made us measure the expanse of our exposed thighs, the school girls that refer to others as sluts because they wear revealing clothes, the mothers that ban their daughters from wearing crop tops and/or short skirts, and the women that emphasize what a female sexual assault victim was wearing or doing preceeding her victimization. Although men created this system of patriarchy and play the main role in instituting it, women, who have internalized misogyny from being socialized to see themselves as inferior, participate in it as well. In tandem with holding men accountable, we also need to look within, examine the covert and overt ways that we uphold the status quo, and correct our own regressive behaviors. In this grueling fight to subvert the patriarchy and put an end to sexual violence, we can’t afford to be working against ourselves.


*This isn’t to negate the traumatic realities of male victims of sexual assault or say that women don’t also victimize men, I’m just specifically focusing on the male offender-female victim dyad in this article since it is the most common

Mackenzie is a HerCampus writer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is a sophomore at Duke University and a sociology and international comparative studies double major. As a nerd with a huge passion for analyzing social phenomena, Mackenzie primarily aims to explore the intricate ways in which topics like race, gender, sexuality, mental health, and education shape current events and pop culture.
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