It’s spring time and the weather is finally warming up a bit, which means that the dress code wars will soon start at junior highs and high schools around the nation. As the weather gets warmer, the skirts and shorts get shorter, and pants and shirts get tighter as we no longer have to layer up against cold weather. As a high school teacher in the Midwest, I see this happen every year. As soon as the temperatures rise above freezing, students get excited to bust out their spring wear: dresses, skirts, shorts, leggings and tank tops.
If it seems like most of these clothing items are things that girls typically wear, you’re right. And, therefore, most dress codes in schools seem to typically address issues with girls’ clothing.
To be sure, boys have restrictions on them, too. In some schools boys are suspended or banned from wearing skirts, and it was just recently that schools started to realize that banning boys from wearing earrings was a violation of their Title IX rights.
The problem is, though, that the dress codes that seem to be most often enforced in the spring are aimed at girls’ short shorts and skirts, or their tank tops and tight pants. These dress codes are typically in place because, school officials say, this type of clothing is “distracting the boys,” which makes these dress codes decidedly sexist.
Just last month in Evanston, IL, female students protested against their school’s ban against leggings. The girls were told that their leggings were “too distracting to boys” to be worn in the classroom. In protest, they signed a petition, and then came to school wearing leggings or yoga pants and holding signs that said “Are my pants lowering your test scores?”
Sophie Hasty, the 13-year-old spokesperson for the students, says that the ban is actually more distracting than the leggings themselves:
It’s humiliating to walk around the hallways wearing bright blue shorts [given to girls by the school]. Boys yell “dress code!” when they see you. They act more inappropriate when you’re walking around in blue shorts when you’ve gotten dress-coded than when you’re just wearing leggings. I asked a teacher to tell us about an incident where a girl was wearing leggings and a guy was getting distracted. There hasn’t been one.
This is by far not a new issue. “Slut-shaming” has been written into school dress codes practically forever. Schools have banned everything from strapless dresses at prom to short skirts to tank tops to yoga pants. Two years ago, Jessica Valenti wrote about this issue for The Nation, saying that not only were girls being targeted, but curvy girls were being targeted even more for the way clothes looked on them.
While dress codes can be good for schools and for students — school is, after all, practice for the workplace, where people find all sorts of dress codes that they must follow depending on the job they hold — the problem is in the way they are enforced. This is the first step to victim-blaming. In telling girls that they need to police what they wear because boys might look at them the wrong way, we are telling girls that it is their fault when boys leer, whistle or grab, it is because of what the girls chose to wear, not because the boys are responsible for their own bad actions.
Dress codes are fine, but they need to be enforced differently. When boys treat girls inappropriately because of their dress, boys should be punished, not girls. We, as a society, need to teach boys to be responsible for their own actions rather than teaching girls that they need to be careful of what they wear, lest the boys get “distracted.”