Are School Dress Codes Damaging?

 

 

Have you ever been dress-coded in school? Take a moment to think about how that made you feel. If you haven’t been dress coded, just know that it feels pretty awful. We are taught to feel so much shame around wearing the “wrong” things. I believe we need to re-think school dress codes and the implications of enforcing strict clothing restrictions on mostly young girls, as well as LGBTQ+ students. If you look at a school dress code chart, oftentimes you’ll see a lot of restrictions on what girls can and can’t wear, versus very little rules for boys. This can have serious long-term impacts such as lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and body image issues.

I personally had a bad experience with dress code in junior high when I was about 14 years old. I was sitting in my English classroom as my teacher was giving a lecture. He suddenly stopped mid-sentence, looked right at me, and announced to the entire class that my jeans were “inappropriate.” He told me I had to either change into my gym shorts or go to the principal’s office. I felt completely humiliated in that moment. My jeans had a couple of holes in them, and they happened to be my favorite pair of jeans. It was at the time that holes in jeans were emerging as a really popular style, and I saw other girls at school wear them all the time. The holes in my jeans were nothing major, but the one problem that got me in trouble was that one of the holes was above my knee. Apparently, that one hole crossed the line and boys were at risk of being distracted by the tiny bit of exposed skin.

I was then required to sacrifice my own learning to be punished for wearing a pair of pants that was deemed inappropriate. I weighed my options, and although the smarter thing to do would probably have been to change into my gym shorts, I couldn’t bear the thought of having to wear those and risk looking ridiculous for the rest of the day. This was junior high and kids would make fun of people for just about anything. I ultimately decided to go to the principal’s office, thinking that hopefully I would just get off with a warning. I was wrong.

Up until this point, I had always followed the rules. I trusted that the people in charge had my best interests in mind. After this experience, I lost that trust. The vice principal was known for being really tough on discipline. She took one look at my jeans and nonchalantly told me of the no-tolerance policy and said the punishment for breaking it was detention. I could not go back to class until my mom brought me a new, appropriate pair of pants. I had never gotten in trouble like this before, let alone get a detention, so I was completely shocked and didn’t know what to say or how to react. The principal then just walked away and left me to call my mom using the main office phone.

As soon as my mom answered, I uncontrollably cried. The kind of crying where you hyperventilate and choke up on your tears. I didn’t want anyone to hear, so I tried to stay quiet. My mom was shocked, but agreed to bring a pair of my jeans. Now, looking back, my mom says she wishes she could go back in time to fight this punishment and stand up for me. At the time though, she thought all she could do was just bring me a pair of hole-less pants and make sure I was okay before she left. I went ahead and braved through the rest of the day even though I was so embarrassed I could barely pay attention in the rest of my classes. I eventually did attend detention. It felt completely ashamed, sitting there in complete silence for what felt like forever with nothing to do but feel shame and do homework. Ever since that experience, I began to lose my trust in the school administration. In a way, this taught me to question authority rather than to always conform to their nonsensical rules.

When girls were wearing “distracting” clothing in school, they were more often the ones punished rather than the boys. My jeans were considered too distracting for other boys to pay attention in class, and instead of the school teaching boys to be tolerant of what other people decide to wear, their solution was to punish me. This is classic victim blaming. There are many more restrictions in school dress codes that are down to the precise measurements for girls, with far less restrictions for boys. We have been taught from a young age that as girls, it is our responsibility to compromise for others.

Reflecting on this entire situation, I have come to realize how much impact this had on me as a child. I felt disrespected and misunderstood. Over time, dress codes can negatively impact one’s self-esteem. It teaches girls that wearing certain clothing is shameful and that their education isn’t as important as a boy’s. Boys are taught that girls are seen as objects. I don’t think school dress codes do much to improve the school environment besides disciplining mostly young girls and victim blaming them. When these things are taught to kids at a young age, it runs the risk of following them through adulthood and perpetuates the misogyny and sexism we experience today.