Dress codes are meant to provide students with a positive learning experience. Unfortunately, dress codes tend to isolate women and encourage sexist behavior.
Dress codes are sexist because they disproportionately target women and encourage the sexualization of women. Sexist dress codes can be fixed by considering input from female students and focusing on limiting offensive clothing instead of “immodest” clothing.
This article discusses the inequalities of dress codes as well as ways these sexist and harmful dress codes can be changed for the better.
Dress Codes Target Females
Dress codes target females. Most dress code rules can only be applied to women’s clothing. Some common dress code rules include no shorts above the knee, no tank tops, no collarbones showing, and no crop tops.
These rules are only applicable to women’s fashion. This is not a coincidence, women have been the victims of sexualization and objectification for decades. It is concerning that these dress codes look to sexualize young girls.
For many girls, especially when the weather gets warmer, their wardrobe consists of tank tops and shorts. This is a perfectly reasonable wardrobe for the warmer months. Most schools have zero tolerance for tank tops and shorts that go higher than the knee. These two articles of clothing are worn by girls.
Boys will occasionally wear tank tops but because the strap on men’s tank tops is usually thicker, they tend to get overlooked. Clothes that help girls feel more comfortable in hot weather aren’t allowed in most school dress codes. This leads to girls being uncomfortable in their clothes at school.
Advocators for strict dress codes argue that dress codes are meant to limit sexualization. Unfortunately, dress codes tend to have the opposite effect. By explicitly stating what parts of a woman’s body are acceptable to show, dress codes draw attention to women in unnecessary ways.
Dress codes also imply that normal parts of a woman’s body such as her shoulders, stomach, and her collarbones are inappropriate. This leads to young girls viewing their bodies with shame.
Girls who do get dress coded are faced with humiliation. In many schools, if someone breaks the dress code they are forced to go home. If they don’t go home they are given an oversized t-shirt, usually from the lost and found, to wear for the rest of the day.
Sending someone home from school for wearing a tank top is not a warranted punishment and leads to these girls missing out on learning. Getting reprimanded about your outfits by an adult is an uncomfortable experience for both the adult and the young girl. It leads to women viewing figures of authority, such as teachers, negatively.
Dress Codes are Written in Favor of Boys
By targeting girls in dress codes, dress codes favor boys. Schools encourage boys to be independent and make their own choices by not giving them wardrobe restrictions. By telling women what to wear but refusing to do the same with boys, dress codes are encouraging boys to see themselves as above certain rules.
Dress codes also teach boys that girls are inherently sexual. Young boys watch girls whom they are supposed to view as equal be reprimanded for the clothes they are wearing. This encourages boys to pay attention to girls’ wardrobe choices.
Most male clothing styles don’t fall under many of the typical dress code rules. Boys tend to wear shorts that fall past the knee and loose-fitting long shirts. Dress codes rarely outline specific expectations for men’s clothing.
Even when boys wear tank tops or shorter shorts, it is rarely noticed. Because it is not noticed, boys are not sexualized. If these same wardrobe choices were not commented on when worn by women perhaps girls would not be as sexualized either.
Dress codes also encourage commenting on/shaming girls for their clothing. Boys who witness these dress codes and the shaming that comes with them see comments on women’s clothing and bodies as warranted. Dress codes teach boys that women’s clothing needs to be monitored and it teaches them that even clothing items like tank tops have sexual connotations.
Dress codes that restrict girls’ clothing options also perpetuate the idea that boys are distracted by girls. Instead of encouraging this way of thinking, dress code policies should educate boys on the importance of respect and boundaries. If boys were aided with that knowledge, there would be no need to force girls to cover up.
Dress codes also damage the dynamics between girls and boys in school. If the dress code does not treat students equally, students won’t treat each other equally. Girls may feel uncomfortable around boys because they have been told by the dress code that the way they dress can affect boys.
Boys may feel guilty because they are being told by these rules that girls’ clothing should make them feel a certain way. Treating girls and boys the same regarding dress can make girls and boys feel more comfortable around each other.
The Consequences of Dress Codes
There are consequences of dress codes. Dress codes objectify women which is sexist. Objectification stops women from reaching equality and gaining the same amount of respect that is given to their male counterparts.
Objectification is defined as seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. This can be harmful to girls’ self-image. Once a young girl is punished for wearing a tank top, it is easy for her to become ashamed of her body.
Strict dress codes also restrict self-expression. For many students, clothing and fashion is a creative outlet that can bring confidence to a young person. Dress codes destroy this outlook on clothing. Clothes should be a way for students to express themselves.
Wearing clothing that you feel comfortable in and love, can help your self-image, Clothes should make you feel confident. Dress codes can make girls feel insecure about their clothes and wonder what is wrong with the way they dress.
Dress codes can make school a negative environment for some students. Students view teachers and principles negatively because these adults are in charge of telling young girls what to wear. Students who don’t like their learning environment and find it restrictive, are not going to learn to their full capability. Schools should be positive places where students can explore their interests and grow into themselves. Clothes are a part of that creative journey.
Enforcing unnecessary dress codes wastes students’ time as well as teachers’ time. Enforcing dress codes is an uncomfortable experience for teachers that can ruin the relationship between students and teachers.
Taking time out of a lesson or a school day to punish students for their attire wastes precious teaching time. Students who get sent home early because they are breaking the dress code miss out on a day of learning as well. Some students earn detention or suspension for breaking dress codes as well.
Strict dress codes can lead to students being self-conscious about their bodies and about their clothes. Students might experience anxiety regarding the clothes they wear because they are scared of confrontation from a teacher.
In middle school and high school, kids are learning about themselves and how they are. Many kids this age do not have high self-esteem. Comments on a student’s wardrobe can be internalized and hurt that student’s self-confidence.
Fixing Dress Codes: Implementing Non-Sexist Dress Codes
Updating and fixing the dress codes in public schools is an important step towards equality. There are ways to keep some of the rules regarding wardrobe in place without being sexist. Schools should periodically review their dress code policies and updating those policies if necessary.
Schools should also be considerate of feedback from students and parents about dress codes. Schools that view their students as people and consider their feedback are going to create great learning environments.
The dress code does not have to be extremely complicated or specific. Simplify your dress code. Trust your students to understand the school policy. A simple dress that includes overall rules that can be applied to everyone at school is going to be easier to adhere to.
Simplifying the dress code also gives students more freedom. This freedom allows students to be creative with their clothing, which is a joy to many students who use fashion as a creative outlet.
Of course, some modesty rules will need to be in place at school. These rules should not target female students. When creating rules regarding modesty, make sure they can be applied to both men and women. Understand that women’s shorts are meant to sit higher on the leg than men’s shorts do.
It is difficult to find shorts that come below the knee for many girls. Rules that require straps on shirts are good because it allows both boys and girls to wear tank tops as long they have some sort of strap.
Dress codes should also pay more attention to clothing with offensive/dangerous messages on them. Focusing dress codes on the content of clothing instead of the style can be a great way to remove negative mindsets and ideas from the school grounds.
Clothes should have positive messages that don’t encourage violence. Clothes should not display offensive language or make demeaning comments to groups of people based on race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, etc.
These types of boundaries surrounding clothing are genderless. They can be applied to anyone no matter their gender. This is a step towards equality because it stops schools from targeting and objectifying girls. School policy regarding clothes should allow room for creativity and improvement. It should prioritize making sure students’ clothing spreads a positive message.
Schools should also take into consideration students’ financial situations. Some students do not have the luxury of having many clothes to wear to school. Reprimanding students for their clothing choices when those might be the only options they have is inconsiderate.
Consider discussing with that student in private their violation of the dress code and be prepared to make exceptions for students based on their financial limitations. School is meant to be a safe place for students, a haven in which they can come and learn.
Include Students and Parents in the Creation of Dress Codes
As schools begin fixing their dress code policies, it is important to consult students. Students, especially girls are affected by these decisions more than anybody else. Their opinions should be taken into consideration when creating these policies. By gathering the opinions and experiences of students and their parents, the school will be able to create an effective and fair dress code.
When students or parents come to the school with concerns about the fairness of the dress code, take these complaints seriously and use them as constructive criticism. Invite students to share their experiences with current dress code policies, both positive and negative. Giving students a voice creates an environment for change and can mend relationships between the school and its students.
Once you have gathered the opinions of the students, create a board of students, parents, and teachers. This board can work together to create a dress code policy. Having a board of both students and adults will provide variety and ensures that everyone is represented in these new rules. Involving students in the dress code policies will teach students leadership and teamwork skills and hopefully give them a better understanding of how decision-making works.
When enforcing the new dress code, teachers should attempt to do it as privately as possible. There is no need to call students out in a classroom of their peers. This does nothing but embarrass the student. In a more private setting, teachers are able to better explain the significance behind the dress code policy that the student is breaking and hopefully come to a healthy solution to the dress issue.
Dress codes should not have negative connotations. They should help students feel comfortable and safe at school and they should still allow for creativity and freedom. No gender should feel specifically targeted by a set of rules set in place by a school.