The Dark Side of Dress Codes

You could be eating at the cafeteria, walking out of a classroom, or doing a test, and all it takes is for that one teacher to see you out of dress code, give you the eye, and you know you’re dead meat.

They come up to you in the most passive-aggressive tone and say, “you are going to have to change out of that,” or “this outfit does not adhere to our dress code policy” -- you know, talking with a fake smile on -- and if you’re like me, you say “yes, sorry, I understand,” but then walk away and keep the same clothes on, praying you don’t see that teacher again.

Who cares, it’s just a dress code - right? It’s all fun and games - right?

Well, no. My exploration of this topic has unmasked the contention that dress codes affect one group… and that one group are girls.

Yes, dress codes arguably perpetuate sexism, highlight political hypocrisy in the U.S, and underscore a much large issue regarding gender dynamics in society.

Sophia Trevino, 13, from Simpson Middle School in Cobb Country, Georgia, remembers asking her friends and mom to help chose her outfit for her first day of eighth grade. All excited, she went to school the next day. When she walked into her first period, the teacher asked Sophia “to measure if the rip in her jeans was lower than her fingertips,” the New York Times tells us. If the fragment of skin showed was above her fingertips, it would be considered out of dress code, and unfortunately, it was. So Sophia, along with 15 other girls were written up that period for failing to adhere to the dress code.

So now, every Friday, Sophia and her friends were t-shirts that “denounce dress codes as “sexist”, “racist”, and “classist””.

But it gets better. At Simpson Middle School, parents can choose to send their kids to school with a mask or not. So the school will leave masking up to parents, but they won’t give parents the choice to tell their kids what to wear. Put differently, the New York Times writes, “if adhering to a public health measure is optional, then… why can’t students opt out of a dress code they see as discriminatory?” Please tell me that the school’s logic is not outweighing the dress code over public health! This example highlights the hypocrisy of dress codes in this school.

But you must be wondering, how are dress codes affecting females?

Todd A. DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, who has been researching about dress codes in public schools said that “the focus on covering girls’ bodies contributes to the very problem that dress codes seek to address: the inappropriate sexualization of female students.”

In DeMitchells 2020 study, out of 25 New Hampshire public schools, most dress code policies specifically targeted girls, with rules on covering cleavage, collarbones, and shoulders. This indicates that these dress codes are sexist.

The study comments that the problem with dress codes is that they tether the idea of ‘provocation’ to female clothing. “In other words, the dress choice of females is presumed to be designed to attract attention from males.” Now to what degree that is true in the real world? I don't know, but what I do know is that the logic elucidates how sexist and backward dress codes are.

Sabrina Bernadel, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center agrees, saying how dress codes “put the onus on girls to not be distracting or not call attention to themselves instead of putting the onus on all students to respect everyone’ body.” Honestly, the way Bernadel describes the underbelly of some dress codes policies feels Talibanesque; like how the Taliban use the logic that women should not provoke a man -- scary stuff.

And this problem has its disparate effects on people of color in the U.S. For the kids that get punished for dress code violations, the order goes black and brown girls, black boys, white girls, then white boys. So when kids are getting punished, they get less learning time, which translates into weaker academic performance. But most of all, this institutionalized sexism can greatly decrease a girl’s self-esteem. Another nuance that complicates this problem of being disciplined for dress code violations is that all bodies come in different shapes and sizes. So it may not necessarily be the clothes that a girl is wearing, but the body they have may make seem some clothes seem normal or "slutty".

So back at Simpson Middle School, where the dress code is that no shorts/skirts go higher than your fingertips when you stand up, some days even I’d probably get in trouble for my shorts being too high! I just can’t imagine how it is for the girls.

Sophia says, “They [the school] think that the boys are just drooling over our shoulders and our thighs… They aren’t. They don’t care. And if they do. That’s not our fault. That’s theirs” - preach.

But that’s the issue, the dress code targets girls and makes them responsible for boys’ actions, and not only is that idea saddening, but it’s dangerous for the uplifting and respect for females.

A solution? While dress codes aren’t made to be sexist, they are, so the work has to be done by schools to remedy the flaws of dress code policy. Also, as members of society we must spread awareness about the hidden side of dress codes, and whether you are a student or adult, just be mindful about judging the clothes people wear.

Work Cited




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