In August of 2017, the Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois made national headlines regarding their dress code. It was a pleasant surprise that the subject was positive attention. The school board had agreed to reform their policy, in order to ensure that their regulations were “written in a manner that does not reinforce stereotypes and does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group based on race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type/size.” For many, it was very refreshing to see an example of a dress code working FOR students, and not against, but the singular success/advancement achieved by this particular high school does not measure with the numerous failures of schools all over the country to respectfully and justly regulate their students’ clothing.
What is a dress code?
Within most school districts, the board of education is legally permitted to place limitations on their students’ rights of expression– so long as the said “offense” inhibits/detracts from the institution’s ability to realize their goals. In regards to this permit, schools can justly define what is appropriate for their students to display, as well as prohibit certain articles of clothing, hairstyles, makeup, and body art (if it is decided that the expression interferes with the establishment’s progress). What the administration neglects to account for is the implication of their deterrent.
Gender bias within dress codes
Subconsciously, many identify dress code atrocities as a “women’s issue.” The exposés centered on dress coding almost always revolve around a young, empowered, female protagonist. Because of this correlation, it would almost seem as though dress codes don’t substantially affect men.
A 2014 study conducted by NPR revealed that regulations are more restrictive for women than for men. For many young girls, it seems that they are the intended target of dress codes, with “short shorts,” skirts, halter tops, shoulder/midriff-bearing blouses, and other generally “female-associated” garments being those of concern. In most cases, males are impervious to dress codes.
Many would agree that the discrepancy between regulations placed on males and those placed on females is appropriate, as standard “male clothing” tends to have less variety, and more modesty by nature. But is this justification valid?
On many high school athletic teams, males are permitted to be shirtless, while females are being sent home for showing “too much shoulder.” When a friend of mine brought it to the school board’s attention that her track team did not allow female athletes to practice in sports bras, yet was not bothered by its male athletes’ bare stomachs and chests, the school responded by enforcing proper use of shirts for ALL members of the team. Instead of giving the female runners permission to run without shirts– which was her intended goal– the board not only denied her request, but took the permit from the male runners as well, in what I assume was an effort to “appease” her.
Instead of celebrating the newfound “equalization” of the track team dress, she had found herself the subject of the male athletes’ annoyance, as (in their opinions) her inability to “deal with it” would put them through the discomfort of sprinting in a shirt (in 90 degree weather). The only effect of the school board motion was reinforcing the idea that a woman cannot gain access to the freedoms that males inherently possess without her action “taking away” some of those freedoms from men. If she had only kept her mouth shut, the boys wouldn’t have had to suffer the inconvenience.
Why do dress codes exist?
It is unanimously understood that the intention of a dress code is to discourage students from wearing clothing (or lack thereof) that hinders the abilities of their peers or faculty to learn or teach effectively. This translates to: “Women’s thighs, stomachs, chests, and shoulders make it harder for my son to pay attention.” This implies that a male’s ability to concentrate is more important than a female’s ability to present her body in her own terms. If a girl comes to school in a shirt that bears cleavage, she can be scolded on the basis that her body is distracting her peers, yet if she were to notify faculty that the unwanted stares or remarks from her classmates were distracting her, she would be told “that’s what you get.”
When I was dress-coded by a teacher in my sophomore year, for wearing a silk camisole over a turtleneck, I was given the rationale that my clothing was “often suggestive” and resembled “women’s sleepwear,” A.K.A lingerie. I did not have excessive amounts of skin showing, nor was I breaking any of the rules defined in the school rules, but I was still advised to change, as my clothing choices were apparently giving off the message that I was asking for “provocative attention.” I felt extremely uncomfortable and self conscious for the duration of the school day, and for the rest of the year, felt compelled to “un-tarnish” the teacher’s judgement of me, or prove my goodness and morality to her. I feared that her opinion of me as a “promiscuous” teenage girl would threaten my success in her class.
Although the intention of a dress code is to save immature teenage boys, or conservative teachers from the un-ignorable horrors of a fallen spaghetti strap, or slight brush of upper thigh, it is in fact much more effective at sexualizing women’s bodies, giving young women a sense of inferiority, and instilling in them that they must diminish their presence, or retreat to modesty, to avoid being shamed and humiliated. •
Originally published Feb 8, 2018