Dress Codes and Codified Sexism: What Are We Really Teaching Students?

There have been numerous articles over the last few months about the problems surrounding fashion policing and school dress codes, and women in particular have been up in arms over the issue.  As Christian Science Monitor notes, boys are not exactly exempt from these issues, and it places parents in a sticky situation…but these dress codes are definitely based on gendered ideas of acceptability, and they tell us a lot about what we are actually, and often inadvertently, teaching our students.

Many dress codes feature stipulations such as “pants and shirt must meet”, skirts and shorts must come below the fingertips, tank top straps must be at least two fingers wide, and flip-flops are banned.  While some of these-~-the flip-flop ban, for example-~-make sense for safety reasons, the reality is that other rules are designed to police the appearances of students.  I don’t deny that there probably should be limits to what students can and cannot wear to school, but those rules need to be far more equitable than they currently are, and they should be based on making students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom, not shaming students for their sexuality.

First of all, I think dress codes need to recognize the reality of clothing markets in the countries in which they are made.  The reality is that girls’ clothing-~-that is, clothing designed for young women, and teenage girls-~-often features things like short shorts and skirts, and tank tops with skinny straps.  Parents can only buy their children what is sold in stores (as my own mother has reminded me throughout my life), which means that parents are then placed in the position of choosing between obeying the school dress code or allowing their students to be comfortable when it grows hot out.  Keep in mind, most public schools (I can’t speak to private schools here) are not air conditioned, which can make it difficult to keep cool.  We need a dress code that allows students to dress comfortably and reasonably given the climate, and that may mean letting students wear shorts that, say, are long enough to cover their whole pockets (which leaves a far wider selection of clothes), without saying they need to be longer than someone’s fingers.  Or, to be honest, we could just say that shorts are fine, instead of arbitrarily sexualizing thighs.  Personally, I’m for just not sexualizing young women’s body parts.

Second of all, many of these restrictions, and their enforcement, disproportionately impact girls.  Recognize that most boys’ shorts are long, and most of their tank tops are not spaghetti straps.  Most of their shirts are long too…in fact, the issue at play with young men is often that they want their pants to be saggy, a story for a different day I think.  But young men are not likely to be sent home, or told they need to change, because their t-shirt is just a little too short or their tank top doesn’t meet the requirements.  

Third, schools just aren’t doing enough to actually achieve what dress codes should: ensuring that students feel safe.  My freshman year of high school, one of the drum majors for the marching band (which I was in, it was part of band class) wore a shirt that said “LAUGH so I can see them bounce”.  And to be honest, I felt kind of uncomfortable: he was a bigger, older guy, with authority over me in the context of that activity, and that shirt made me feel unsettled.  I’m fine with schools saying that clothing can’t contain sexually explicit messages, because they can make students feel uncomfortable or even unsafe.  But the school did nothing about that boy and his t-shirt, nor did they ever do anything about shirts saying things like “Save Water, Shower Together” with a stick figure image of a guy and a girl under a shower head, or “You know you want it”.  

When schools create these dress codes, they claim it is because other students “can’t concentrate” when girls wear short skirts or tank tops to class.  But other feminists, and many students, have already articulated the things I feel on this matter: we need to stop teaching men, and especially boys, that it is okay to sexualize girls’ bodies.  We need to stop teaching our students that boys’ “focus” is more important than girls’ safety, which is what we say when we create these uneven dress codes.  And we need to stop telling girls that how they look, and how boys feel about it, is more important than their education, which is what we say when we pull girls out of class or send them home to change.  Students learn a lot more than just algebra and history in high school: they learn how to navigate social roles and interact with peers in different contexts.  Are these really the lessons about social expectations that we want young people to internalize?  Do we really want to keep reproducing a culture that says that women need to modify their appearance to appease or protect themselves from men?  Or do we want to change the story, and tell men that they need to learn to behave around women, need to stop sexualizing random body parts on women, need to respect their female colleagues?  

I know which world I’d rather live in, don’t you?

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~ by Randi Saunders on July 8, 2014.

3 Responses to “Dress Codes and Codified Sexism: What Are We Really Teaching Students?”

  1. Amen, I know how you feel. One time I saw a boy wearing a shirt that said:
    Five Dollar footlong with an arrow pointing down…
    I was like oh okay, i can’t wear spaghetti straps, but you can talk about your “unmentionables”
    Yup, that’s america!

  2. Such dress codes also impact disproportionately hard on transgender and also gender non-conforming students.

    • I don’t remember if I mentioned this in the original post but it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about because school dress codes and professional dress codes alike disproportionately impact transgender and gender non-conforming persons. Thanks for bringing up this issue!

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