During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I was sent to the office every day for a dress code check. You might be thinking that the school I went to where my clothing was such an issue was a conservative school, when actually, it was at a public high school, in a liberal town in the Northeastern United States. I wasn’t wearing anything scandalous, usually jeans and a tank top. Every day for two years this outfit was deemed inappropriate enough to pull me out of class and send me down to the office. There the vice principal would scrutinize me and either tell me I passed or that I needed to put on a sweater. Every day my education was interrupted while other girls in the same clothes were allowed to go about their business. Every day boys walked around oblivious to the fact that a dress code even existed.
I’m curvy, always have been. By high school (1998-2002, yes I’m old), I had the body of a much older woman. My body may have been mature, but that did not mean that I was the hypersexual or the sexualised woman that I was often treated as. However, my body made me a prime target for dress code violations. Spending two years of my life knowing that at some point during my day, I was going to be singled out, was stressful. It left me on edge. It made me want to hide. I avoided certain hallways and certain teachers. Because the school had singled me out, it made it easier for my peers to single me out. My body was open to comment, and I was conditioned to accept it. It took a long time for me to realize that it didn’t matter what I wore. My clothing was never the problem. It was my body that was unacceptable to the school. It was my body that was up for scrutiny. It was my body that had to pass inspection every day for two years. Sadly, not much has changed since I was called down to the office. Girls are still battling dress codes and the supposed values they represent.
Dress codes and the theory of preventing distraction to another's education is one of the many ways that we, as a culture, police young women’s bodies. Dress codes reinforce the idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to control someone else’s actions. If you are modest enough, demure enough, good enough, nothing bad will happen. In truth, dress codes are just another subtle tool used to shame and control. It tells girls that their bodies are wrong: that they are inherently sexual and that no man can control themselves when female flesh is showing.
For girls like me, the ones who develop early, the ones who are plus sized, the ones who look older than the prescribed idea of what a “high school girl” looks like, dress codes become much harder to navigate. Tops that are acceptable on peers are deemed profane, bra straps are impossible to hide, bodies become a political battleground whether you like it or not. Amy Steverson from Maryville, TN learned this when she showed up to her school’s prom and was told that “us big girls got to cover up.” She was asked to put on her vice principle’s jacket over her dress. Amy expected to go through a teenage rite of passage, to experience her prom and leave with good memories. She did go through a rite of passage. She experienced her body being up for public commentary. She experienced public shaming. In this, her school truly prepared her for the future. Amy was shamed because she has breasts, because the adult administrators at her school sexualised her body, and saw her as her parts instead of her whole.
Dress codes are overwhelmingly skewed to target girls, people of color, gender nonconforming students, and those perceived as hyper-sexual. They conform to white, cis, heteropatriarchy standards, and punish those that fall outside those lines. The gender-specific nature of dress codes is particularly problematic. It puts the onus for male behavior on the appearance and actions of women. This is a fundamental component of rape culture. The gendered component of dress codes goes deeper than that by prescribing gendered clothing for students. It reinforces ideas that women are decorative, weak, and restricts movement through clothing by mandating skirts, dresses, certain footwear, all traditionally “feminine” attire. Using clothing as a physical restriction as well as using it as a social signifier. Class and culture are all telegraphed through clothing, dress codes exploit this making clothing an incredibly powerful social tool. Dress codes set a bar for what makes a girl “good” or “bad” in the microcosm of society that schools are. The codes are built to establish a moral high ground.
The idea of female modesty being in itself a “virtue”--defined by being quiet, humble, and unassuming--means that women are expected to play a submissive role. Society and schools ask women to embody these qualities. Girls start to become less active in school politics, in science and math classes, all as time goes on and the focus on their appearance becomes more prominent. Modesty is something girls are taught to aspire to. Their exterior is expected to match their interior. Boys are supposed to be strong, to be leaders, whereas girls are trained to be followers. When they do not conform, they are called out for dress code, or similar violations. It is a way to police behavior through appearance.
One of the largest issues with dress codes is the time it takes away from the classroom. When violators are pulled from class, they miss critical instruction, face missed days, and in school suspensions all because their education is deemed less important than the length of their hems. The implied danger of a barred shoulder is greater than a girl’s education. It is more important to protect someone’s potential for salacious thoughts than to keep girls in classrooms receiving the education their peers get. Sexualized, objectified, and ostracized because of gender, girls are missing out on hours of instruction for arbitrary puritanical reasons.
Gendered dress codes and the values they reinforce don’t only hurt girls, but also have a negative impact on boys. By teaching boys that women are distracting sexual objects, that they are not responsible for their reactions around women, we create men who think they are entitled to women’s bodies. This is part of the cycle of education that teaches women not to get raped instead of teaching men not rape. Men are already being taught that they are not responsible for their reactions to women. Society programs boys to believe that “boys will be boys” and dress codes are one of the ways that we enforce that. Boys see their classmates sexualized and start to sexualize them, creating a pattern of toxic masculinity. The distinction between when they stop seeing girls as classmates, playmates, and peers happens gradually, but it is mirrored from when they see the adults around them pointing out the differences. Dress codes are designed to highlight physical differences between the sexes.
Dress codes are also a component of victim blaming. Rape and assault victims face the question of “what were you wearing?”, proof that a woman’s clothing never ceases to be tied to her worthiness. If you wear the right things, behave the right way, then you are a credible victim. By asking assault victims what they wore, it is like asking them to go to the principal's office once again for violating a dress code. In schools, if your clothing is consider revealing or body is considered mature, the dress code is a tool that is used to deem women less credible than their peers. Therefore, they are the ones who are at fault for anything that might happen to them in the form of harassment to assault. The codes have a moral component. They punish indivuality and self expression in favour of conformity. Dress codes punish the outlires. For those that don’t meet it, public punishment is deemed necessary.
What is the solution to the current state of dress codes? To begin with, dress codes need to be gender neutral. Dress codes that specifically target women’s attire, such as skirts and spaghetti straps, could violate Title IX. If the code is written in a way that is gendered and creates a hostile environment for girls due to their being harassed, inordinately disciplined, and humiliated, then a case can be made that the code violates the law. However, dress codes, as they stand, discriminate not only based on sex, but gender expression, sexuality, class, body size, and race. They feed into stereotypes that hurt the communities they are trying to build, and sacrifice the education of the students they are punishing. The key to building effective and fair dress codes is that they need to be developed in conjunction with the students. A community of well-intentioned adults is not going to be able to fairly construct a system; a diverse panel of students is needed to build a code for each community, and it needs to be reevaluated every two or three years as fashions and values change. Most importantly the procedures for what happens when a student violates the code needs to change. Being publicly shamed, missing class time, and body shaming the student needs to end. If dress codes are really about a student being distracting to others, then that should be handled in a gender neutral, nonjudgmental way. Dress codes that sexualize and objectify girls when they are still minors, teaching them that they are responsible for other’s actions are a relic of the past that we need to do away with. Dress codes deny boys personal responsibility and teach them that their classmates are objects that they are entitled to instead of people they are equal to. Students are capable of and deserve better.