Dress Code: The Shame Rested on Girls Uncovered Shoulders
From the ripe age of 13, I learned that my body is a weapon towards males' attention; that I should hide it because it is my fault they think of girls in an overly sexualized manner. The first memory I have of being sexualized was in middle school. It was introduced to me from the sheer embarrassment of being sent to the office because of wearing leggings. I was one of the maturest and tallest girls in the seventh grade at about 5’6, so I was often a target for teachers who felt strongly about shorts, leggings, uncovered shoulders or bra straps. Although, I recall throughout my entire public school experience as a young girl, I have never genuinely witnessed a boy facing the consequences for not following the dress code.
When a teacher calls a young girl out in the middle of class to tell her that her legs are too long for her shorts, she is too developed for her shirt, or her pants are too tight, there is a long lasting, negative physiological effect on how she will view her body as it inevitably grows and changes. It teaches girls that what we wear is more important than our right to education, and men are true dictators over our bodies.
So, What is Dress Code?
If you do not know, “Dress Code” is the policy that enforces what students can and cannot wear to school. These codes are placed in order to promote the proper learning environment, free of distractions. Violation of these codes can result in suspension, being expelled from school, being pulled out of class to change clothes, and or detention. Women often have dress codes enforcing how much of their legs they can show, how much of their chest they can show, how much of their stomachs they can show, and even how much of their shoulders they can show. (Basically any body part with skin.) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 62% of middle schools and 56% of high schools dress code rules include no tank tops, no leggings, or no shorts that can’t pass the “fingertip rule.” This rule is used as a test to determine if shorts are too short, or when pants with hems aren’t longer than a student’s fingertips with their arms at their sides.
How Dress Code Targets Girls: The Facts
To provide an example of how gender targeted dress codes towards girls are, I chose a random school and researched their dress code rules as stated in the schools code of conduct. In the School District of Manatee, Florida their code of conduct regarding dress code restrictions are as followed:
“All tight fitting jeans, yoga pants, or jeggings must have a back pocket or be covered by a shirt or dress that is fingertip length
Clothing that exposes cleavage/bra/undergarments/bare midriff
No leggings (All tight fitting jeans, yoga pants or jeggings must have a back pocket)
Bare midriffs, backless tops, sheer garments, and oversized arm holes, unless worn with an appropriate under shirt
Jeans, pants, or shorts with rips or cuts must not expose any bare skin
Shorts, skirts, or garments covering tights or leggings must be appropriate in length
All clothing underneath jackets, cardigans, etc. must be appropriate. Halter tops, tank tops with spaghetti straps, etc. are not allowed underneath jackets
Spaghetti straps of any kind are not permitted
Tank-tops must be at least two inches in width on the shoulders AND have an under-shirt with sleeves OR an over-shirt that is worn at all times. Otherwise, tank tops are not allowed.”
If we look at these set of rules, it is not bluntly said, but almost all of them attribute to what girls' typical attire consists of. As stated in the code, they do not accept tight jeans, leggings, yoga pants, jeggings, shirts that expose bras, cleavage, or bare midriff, ect… the list goes on. But on this list do we see any rules that only apply to boys' typical attire other than tank tops or ripped pants? No, because it is not the societal expectation for boys to wear these things, and their bodies are not objectified for the things they do typically wear. Their bodies are not as sexualized in their choice of outfit, as compared to how society views womens in theirs. It has nothing to do with clothes, but simply society's specific perspective on the bodies of women. This is the epitome of slut shaming culture, as it has been inferred that what girls' wear causes boys to be distracted from their education. It is then deemed that it is the girls fault for not covering up, and that their education is not as important as the boys’.
As it can be argued that there are some common dress codes that apply to boys as well, for example tank tops, the “fingertip rule” for shorts, or tight, ripped jeans. They are supposed to face the same level of discipline as their other peers that defy these rules. But, are they really facing consequences for when they go against their school's dress code? According to data collected by a Flordian high school parent, it shows throughout the school year, 90% of those dress coded at Bartram Trail High School were girls. Additionally, in a survey conducted by highschooler Ary Eagan, which consisted of about 160 respondents (of which 83% teenagers,) the data shows that 79.3% of the total respondents claimed they knew a female peer that has been dress coded, and only 3.7% said they knew a boy. (Eagan) This means about four out of five of the 160 respondents had only seen girls dress coded in school, with only 0.2 out of five respondents having the memory of a boy ever being dress coded.
From Dress Code to Rape Culture
In reality when considering the lesson taught to women to be ashamed of their bodies, it should be the boys taking accountability for their wrongful behavior. If boys are taught from a young age that this view of women is tolerable, and not to control their sexual impulses, then who is to say that this objectifying behavior will futuristically evolve into something more? In You're Wearing That? From School Dress Codes to Rape Culture, author Claire Katz explores the original reasoning behind dress code, and why the misogynistic blame is now outdated. Katz writes, “Dress codes perpetuate rape culture rather than prevent rape. Rather than making women less likely to be touched without their consent, the petition started by many schools across the nation charged that by making girls responsible for boys’ behavior the dress codes contributes to rape culture where victims are blamed for dressing provocatively.” Katz also goes to explain that dressing a certain type of way has been proven to not prevent sexual assault. It teaches women that by covering up, and “dressing modestly,” that they will be safe from the chance of facing rape or sexual harrasment, which has been proven to be unfortunately fictional. The sexist dress code enforces the societal expectation that girls are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention, and that those wearing “unmodest” apparel are “asking for” it. “It” including sexual assault and harassment.
The Effects on Young Girls
Let's face it: the preteen and teenage years are really awkward. Your body starts changing all over, you start getting pimples, and those adult hormones are only just starting to creep their way into your body. Now imagine the discomfort you felt with yourself when you started actually noticing your body or behaviors changing. Whether you start discovering your sexuality or wearing bras, it's not familiar. When girls are targeted for dress codes, especially during this time of change, they are taught that certain parts of the female body are inappropriate and it tells them that they need to be hidden. It leads to girls feeling like there’s something wrong with the way they look, or that there’s something wrong with them that is not acceptable for society. According to Gendered.org, studies have shown that self-awareness about one’s appearance leads to worse performance in education, increased chances of developing eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
What We Can Do to Change
Over the past decade, young girls and parents have taken the conflict of sexist dress codes to social media, and fought for a reform. Movements have arisen to fight against discriminatory dress codes such as SPARK, “Pass the Skirt”, the Ruth movement, and other trending hashtags on social media like #IAmMoreThanADistraction. This has given young girls a chance to express the problem with dress codes and how they effect societies discriminatory mindset towards oversexualizing women. The Ruth project shares on their website some advice and tips for taking action in dress code reform. “Show your school/county that dress code reform is an issue of equity. Do your research and come prepared. Find the people in your school/county who are responsible for writing Code of Conduct/dress code policies.” Lastly they sum up the bottom line that students are stakeholders, so use your voice.
Another thing we can take into consideration is how we are going to raise our future generation to respect, and take responsibility for their views on women’s bodies. We reconstruct gender orientated dress codes and educate our future children to learn ways of how to control themselves and methods to stay focused. Our call to action is to teach those from a very young age to respect and not sexualize the female body. By doing this it will open up new doors and societal norms which will make all the difference to preventing discriminatory acts, which will lead to gender equity.
The future is in our hands together to make a change.
Katz, C. E. (2021, July 24). You're wearing that? from school dress codes to rape culture. Blog of the APA. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://blog.apaonline.org/2021/07/28/youre-wearing-that-from-school-dress-codes-to-rape-culture/
Manatee Schools. (2021). Dress code. Parish Community High School. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.manateeschools.net/Page/8391
Shields, L. (2021, April 12). Public records show more dress code violations for female students in St. Johns County Schools. First Coast News. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/entertainment/television/programs/gmj/public-records-disproportionate-dress-code-violations-female-students-st-johns-county-schools/77-a2bd2163-f28d-427b-9815-7e9b8b5c8cd1
Eagan, A. (2022). The issue with Dress Codes. Cougar Chronicle. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://cougarchronicle.org/opinion/2020/12/18/the-issue-with-dress-codes/
Rooij, T. D. (2020). Dress code. Dress code – THIS IS GENDERED. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://thisisgendered.org/entry/dress-code/