School dress codes: Necessary or sexist?

Ok. Today I am going to write about an issue that has bugged me for years, in many different ways: dress codes.

I got to thinking about this topic again when I read this essay by Marion Mayer, titled “Why I’m taking a stand against my school’s ‘dress code’”. In it, Mayer outlines many of the problems she has with a dress code based on the ideas that “modest is hottest” and “boys will be boys” (I’ll give you a minute to gag).

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Now I’m confused.

This is by no means a new issue; every now and then, a news article will pop up about a school that wouldn’t let a girl enter the prom because she was showing “too much” cleavage, a parent who chronicled 8th-grade girls’ short dresses (and her horror at these dresses) on her blog, or schools banning “too tight” pants and leggings.

Once one of those articles pops up, a bazillion more reactions will appear on various blogs. The opinions put forth in these posts will range from “Good, girls dress too revealingly these days!” to “Let girls wear whatever they want! Self-expression!”

Obviously, there are a LOT of issues inherent in the idea of school dress codes. I’m going to outline some of the ones that I personally think are problematic, but this is not to be taken as an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear other perspectives in the comments!

Monitoring dress = monitoring bodies

Dress codes and their enforcement seem to disproportionately affect girls. This is problematic for many reasons. First, it sends the message that girls’ bodies are things that need to be monitored by people who “know better”. This kind of mindset is a very mild version of the kind of opinion that thinks that “authority figures” should be able to monitor other things about girls’ and women’s bodies – like whether or not they have access to birth control or safe, legal abortions. It sets the groundwork for a lifetime of feeling like other people are allowed to make decisions about your body and what you do with it.

Next, it sends the message that one of the most important aspects of who a girl is is what she looks like. By making and enforcing dress codes, we repeatedly bring the topic of girls’ appearance to the forefront, making it seem like it’s normal that that’s an important thing to talk about. (Also, since dress code regulations often have to do with skimpiness or tightness, they reinforce the idea that a woman’s body is always sexual).

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Actual school dress code guide. AKA cartoon drawings of boobs.

Furthermore, dress codes are enforced unequally. A skinny girl wearing a cute sundress and a curvy girl with big boobs wearing the same cute sundress might both be in violation of the dress code (if it involves regulations about things like the width of straps or the length of a skirt), but I have to wonder who is more likely to be spoken to about it. I’d venture to guess the girl who is “showing more skin,” which, if you think about it, is simply the girl who HAS more skin. It’s very easy to go from policing clothing to policing bodies themselves, and that is not appropriate. (Also, if the rule is something vague like “no excessive cleavage” – even though I’m not sure if that’s something that’s allowed to show up in writing in dress codes – we are again punishing the girl who HAS more cleavage and asking her to dress differently than the girl with small boobs and no cleavage to speak of). While I’m a big believer in dressing for your body, I also believe that enforcing different rules for people of different sizes is problematic.

Whoops - guess you ARE allowed to say 'cleavage'

Whoops – guess you ARE allowed to say ‘cleavage’

“Boys will be boys”

Finally – and this is the big one – one of the most often-cited reasons for a dress code is that girls wearing skimpy outfits will “be distracting to boys” both in the classroom and in social situations.

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Not gonna lie, seeing all of these dress code guides is beginning to make me feel a bit creepy. Holy body-policing, Batman!

Do we see why that’s an issue? First, it implies that girls are responsible for boys’ thoughts and actions. It’s not really a huge logical leap from “I couldn’t concentrate on my reading because her dress was so tight” to “I assumed she WANTED to have sex with me since her dress was so tight”. By attributing that kind of influence to girls’ outfits, we’re effectively saying that boys are not responsible for what they think or do in the presence of a girl who is showing a little skin.

Furthermore, that’s kind of insulting to boys, don’t you think? This mindset creates an image of boys as these instinct-driven hormone machines who can’t be logical, reasonable, or intelligent. It also makes it seem acceptable for boys to actually be distracted by girls; by using it as an official explanation for dress codes, we’re effectively saying that it’s inevitable and therefore excusable (on the boys’ part).

A teacher’s perspective

Now, I’d be lying if I said that I was never felt uncomfortable with the way my female students dressed – when I started teaching, it was thongs visible above the waistband of super-low-rise jeans, and when I left it was leggings as pants and those loose, off-the-shoulder tops. There have been times when I’ve thought “what was she thinking??” and “what kind of point is she trying to make??”. The thing is, unless I asked the student herself those questions, there was no way I was ever going to know. And to be honest, it’s none of my business anyway.

So, do I think that students sometimes dress “inappropriately” for school? Yes. Do I think that dress codes are the answer? No. So what is the answer? In an ideal world, it would be that we foster an environment where girls are empowered to choose clothing that they’re comfortable in, that makes them feel confident, and that expresses whatever they’re choosing to express. Where girls don’t feel like they have to buy a particular brand of clothing to fit in, to wear a particular style to be accepted, or to show or cover a particular amount of skin to avoid judgment. Where girls feel like they can spend hours thinking about clothing and self-expression, or just throw on whatever’s there because they have more important things to think about.

But obviously, we don’t live in an ideal world. So what do you think?

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29 responses to “School dress codes: Necessary or sexist?

  1. Ms. McConnell I totally agree with everything you said here! As a high school student I can honestly say how frustrating the dress code is because they DEFINITELY treat boys and girls differently. Whenever I hear something about dress codes, it’s always addressed to the female population of the school because it’s assumed that we’re trying to show off to our male counterparts, which simply isn’t true. I wear leggings and yoga pants because they’re easy to wear and are comfortable, the same goes with certain tops.

    I think the MOST frustrating thing I’ve ever heard is when girls are told that they can’t wear shirts that expose their bra straps. At this point, if boys who are between ages 14 and 18 can’t handle the fact that girls wear bras, then honestly, whose fault is that?

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  2. I really appreciate this post as a girl, but more intensely as a TALL girl. I am always visible, the easiest to see, and the easiest to catch. Finding shorts I could wear in middle school (when we had the “your shorts must be as long as your fingertips” rule) was virtually IMPOSSIBLE. Also, my “exposed” shoulders were higher than everyone else’s, so I had to be extra careful about my tank tops.

    I do agree in the fact that thongs should be kept inside shorts, but bra straps shouldn’t be an issue. They’re the same width as spaghetti strap tank top straps. Oh yeah, and boys have their underwear out all the time. Why isn’t anyone berating them? I think thats all I have to say. Reading this made my brain go crazy with things to say.

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  3. It’s interesting reading about school dress codes because it wasn’t an issue at my all-girls school. We could wear our own clothes in sixth form and pretty much wear whatever we wanted. In contrast, the (mixed) school across the road had very strict guidelines – sixth form could wear their own clothes but they had to be ‘smart’ (office wear) which ended up with boys in suits and girls in smart dresses/heels. It’s interesting that the regulation of women’s bodies seems (anecdotally) to be more of an issue in coeducational environments. It also raises an issue about rape culture – if we disseminate/condone/encourage the idea that female clothing/bodies are “distracting” to boys then it goes quite a long way towards legitimising victim blaming.

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    • Ooh, since our single-sex schools tend to be religious/private and therefore wear uniforms, I didn’t even think of this potential difference. I guess since you weren’t in danger of distracting any impressionable, innocent boys, your clothing wasn’t an issue!

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  4. Bra straps is a very good point. It is never an issue if a boy’s undershirt is visible, whether it’s a tank top, low cut, see through, tight, loose ect. but girl’s bra straps seems to be an issue. I have a feeling it has to do with bras being about breasts and breasts being “naughty.”

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  5. Pingback: A post about blogging – so meta! | I was a high-school feminist·

  6. After my first few years of elementary school, my school instituted a mandatory uniform policy and at that age I didn’t think too much about what I wore. Once I entered middle school, I began to experiment more with the way I dressed. I didn’t always make the best decisions on how to dress in middle school and high school as I tried to learn how to dress my changing body but I was lucky enough to be in a school that didn’t enforce a strict dress code. I think it’s important for both girls and boys to have the freedom to explore the way they want to dress at an age when they’re starting to define their identities as individuals.

    I do think it’s important for schools to be able to draw the line of appropriateness/inappropriateness somewhere and I understand that a dress code allows them to say that a student was in violation of rules they should have been aware of if they dress in a certain way. But the way most dress codes are currently defined needs to change. I’ve seen dress codes that include rules about jewelry that makes a lot of noise, wearing too much perfume or cologne, and not exposing your underwear (which goes for both genders). At least the inclusion of those rules makes it seem like it’s not just about policing women’s bodies.

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  7. When I was in high school, I always got stopped by a teacher for wearing a tasteful blouse that came just off the shoulders and it drove me crazy. In return I drove her crazy by continuing to wear it. I had a very ethnic style in high school – never wore anything I would consider even remotely “slutty” – and I defied her because I could not understand what there was to offend anyone by showing my shoulders. I dressed for myself, I had a distinct style and I knew who I was. I’m glad I never caved in. If boys were distracted, they were probably going to be no matter what a girl was wearing, I can walk around in a turtleneck and still get looks. The problem is not with girls’ bodies, its with the way we raise boys.

    Years later, what am I doing but working in the business of selling dresses for prom. The funny thing is, in the area I live in, there are very few restrictions on what you can and cannot wear for most schools around here. Open backs and cut-outs continue to be de rigueur, even where many moms are concerned. We have removable panels for the corset-backed dresses (to cover up the skin of the back) but even the conservative christian schools here don’t seem to care whether their students use them or not. In general, prom dresses are trending towards the red carpet, resulting in more mature and high-end looks which greatly defy the push schools take to keep their students looking like innocent little girls. I say the confidence some of these girls get seeing how amazing they look (and holy crap, do they ever!) is well worth it. Most of them in that moment aren’t giving a single thought about how it’ll impress their boyfriend – its usually the mom who ends up saying something about how the boy will like it, funnily enough.

    On the other hand, I find it outrageous that girls who are bustier, curvier, or who look more mature than others might be easily discriminated against due to their body type. I have girls with DD and DDD busts all the time and I can tell you there are dresses that can support and even reduce the appearance of their bust to a proportional and manageable size, but they are always going to show cleavage. High-neck illusion styles (translucent mesh, usually beaded) are really in now, too, but they do little for the bustier girls because they’re too restrictive. So what’s a girl like that going to do? Hide her beautiful, curvy mama self? Sure, just take her moment of self appreciation and crush it with a “that’s too sexy for us, we have to reject you because you look too good, even though we also reject you because you’re not skinny.”

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  8. I always find it odd when people complain that the codes affect boys more than girls. I mean, of course! That’s fashion’s fault, not the school’s. If a guy showed up in super short shorts, I’m sure they’d make him change too.

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    • That’s nonsense, I’m afraid. Often the reason given for controlling female bodies and modes of dress is so as not to “distract the boys”. That almost never happens the other way around. The effect of dress codes is, as the blog post demonstrates, to regulate female bodies and make women responsible for the thoughts and actions of men.

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  9. Really the only dress codes needed are: Don’t show up naked, keep genitals covered. While it’s important to consider other peoples comfort levels when it comes to clothing (which is why it is important for businesses to have dresscodes) enforcing such specific rules (“shoulder straps must be 4 inches” “shorts must be finger-tip length”) rarely are other people as a whole considered in being comfortable, it’s distractions of (ESPECIALLY BOYS) educations. Really, last year I had the vice principle insinuate that anyone who wore yoga pants or tank tops was a tramp, while actually using the word tramp. Maybe dress codes could be better if we looked at why dress codes can be important and what is our honest reason behind having them in schools.

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    • Excellent point – I think so often people issue rules like that as a way to avoid actually having conversations about the issues, or to actually deal with the issues. The fact that “it distracts boys” is still considered a totally logical excuse for these codes is mind-blowing.

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  10. This is quite an old post, but I just wanted to point out that not every school only regulates girls’ uniforms/clothing. Yes, my school told girls off for wearing tight clothes or clothes that showed too much skin, but they also didn’t allow boys to wear tight trousers or trousers that fell down to below their bums. I think my school did well in making sure that girls and boys are treated equally!

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  11. I’ve always had a problem with dress codes like this, especially in high school. I never once saw a boy get in trouble for his clothes, except maybe wearing a hat in the classroom. And I knew these teeny little skinny girls who would wear shirts that literally showed half of their A-cup tits, but a girl with double Ds got in trouble for wearing a completely-covering top because it didn’t have straps. It really is body policing. It’s like their whole goal is just to keep girls from looking any way that THEY happen not to like (“they” being teachers, admin, security guards, whatever).

    I think that the dress code should be “don’t wear anything promoting illegal activities or revealing genitalia.” And that should be about the end of it.

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  12. Another reason there are dress codes are concerns of safety. Some schools are or were in gang territories, at least when I was in school.

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  13. Fallacies in order:
    Tiny sample size
    And again
    And again

    And… Yet again. Your quotes and images, are a sample size of one per part of the dress code topic. This means you have a high chance of your evidence being evidence of a rare case. You’re also not providing complete samples for evidence of your claim. This leads to the issue still being open to omitted information, sparse occurrences, and outright individual failed judgment calls in enforcement.
    Finally, in your one-sample article, you claim that this isn’t enforced nearly as much on boys, but you’re making a widespread claim with an incomplete single-unit sample of anecdote at best, and just waiting for the echo chamber to sing in your ears.
    Fact – despite your claim that revealing clothing doesn’t distract anyone, there is enough proof that sexual arousal distracts people from the task at hand and attracts attention to the person or thing exciting them.
    Here’s one study done on men: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1018769200845
    This was also cited in Game Theory as part of evidence that revealing costumes and attractive characters can be a strategic advantage in competitive gaming.
    Finally, boys in school are allowed to reveal as much as girls, if not less. But it’s not only arousal that is an issue. Potential to offend and disgust is also a risk. Some people don’t want to see what you look like revealing as much as you would if you only wore your underwear, while some others would crawl in your window to see it, and as humans are gonna be human, it can distract both cases from their schoolwork. Search for scientific, peer reviewed studies, educate yourself. I recommend PLOSOne and Springer.

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    • I forgot to add, in an ideal world, we could all just wear whatever we want or nothing at all without worry, but we can’t live in an ideal world.

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      • Then what… WAS the point of your post? To complain about an imaginary war on girls? To make a claim that somehow girls are being oppressed just because they can’t show off their junk in school just like the boys can’t? To argue a slippery slope (which I admit I neglected to point out earlier) as a reason to exempt girls from dress code? Are you trying to say that society is blaming girls for boys’ actions by telling them that revealing clothing might distract the boys like they say to the boys about distracting the girls?
        It really just seems like a huge mess of preaching over something that’s not happening as much as you might perceive.

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      • Ah – I apologize – you did get the point! I am definitely saying that “society is blaming girls for boys’ actions by telling them that revealing clothing might distract the boys like they say to the boys about distracting the girls”.
        And I promise, from the point of view of both a former high school teacher and someone who follows issues like this, it is happening.
        Thanks again for reading!

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