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Isn’t It Time to End Sexist School Dress Codes?

Isn’t It Time to End Sexist School Dress Codes?

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.”

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Photo Credit:whatleydude

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168 comments

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10:38AM PDT on Jul 2, 2014

Let them all wear pants.

8:49AM PDT on May 27, 2014

I wonder if the dress code is to keep the teachers from getting distracted. Nonetheless, I am of 2 minds on this. On one hand I think it is important to teach our 13-14 year old daughters that they do not have to dress like porn stars to get attention. As in the work place, some attire just isn't appropriate.

However, if the message is that girls need to dress a certain way to control boy's behavior, well that is just wrong. At what point are boys taught to respect women? And where is the line? There is a big difference between dressing attractively and dressing provocatively. Some people think that just because a young woman looks like a young woman she is dressing like a slut. Should an attractive girl dress frumpy?

There needs to be some common sense. If a man is wearing an Armani suit and flashing $100 bills and gets mugged, the fault lies with the mugger of course. However there are certain behaviors that can increase the likelihood of being a target of mugging. In a perfect world a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants and not get harassed but our world is hardly perfect.

Girls and boys alike need to be taught what is and is not appropriate in school and in life.

8:54PM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

You cannot tell me that the girls will distract more the boys compared to the vise versa if there are no followed dress code rules. I think it goes both ways. If the school system are so worried about the distraction that some clothing can cause among students, then implement the uniform. It works, don't have to worry about what you will wear the next day or if you are "in mode".

10:52AM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

I went to a catholic school and had to wear uniforms. I liked it. it was easy to get dressed in the morning which for me was even better.( I liked wearing pants). I was a real tomboy and hated dresses but the uniforms were ok,( not to prissy), however I totally agree with the point that girls need to stop being slut shamed when the problem really is half with the boys who have not been taught to control those urges to gloat or slobber over a pretty girl. I mean come on now are we a civilized society or not?

10:32AM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

I had a uniform in my all girl junior high. It was horrible, The fact that we had a uniform didnt deflect any bullying or cruelty towards each other although that was the intention. Clothes are such a big part of self identity and self dicovery growing up and its time to embrace that and empower the young girls in our society.

5:17AM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

Can I just ask, these girls who protested, what will they do when they go to their future careers and there is a uniform at work (nursing, police, army, pilot) will they protest then? Wearing the uniform is sometimes part of the education itself, wearing it you represent that establishment and are part of a team, uniforms should unite people. Also the differences between the "haves" and the "have nots" are less easily detected when everyone is in uniform, if pupils are allowed to wear expensive, labelled clothing instead of uniform don't you think there will be more persecution of the have nots than these few girls are "suffering " from being shouted "dress code" at?

4:43AM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

I agree that ALL schools should have an appropriate dress code that ALL students should follow. I personally, am a big fan of a uniform.. I think it makes kids look smarter and the schools more professional (just my opinion).

Having said that, I don't think that the girls uniform has to be a skirt or a dress at all! In fact they should ALL have the option to choose between a skirt (of an appropriate length), shorts / culottes (long-ish) or trousers, same for the boys.

2:52AM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

Clare M. Except that the girls look different because we're wearing skirts. Some schools allow girls to wear trousers and frankly if the school has a uniform it should damn well include a trouser option for girls.

Also its amazing how many grown men have commented on this article with but but sluts! If you've gone I agree except for when girls dress really slutty then you've completely missed the point.

11:36AM PDT on Apr 13, 2014

I understand the dress code rules but it is important that the schools not use it to justify victim-blaming.

11:19AM PDT on Apr 13, 2014

Sorry, but really some school girls dress in a totally inappropriate manner.Skirts up to their ears are not suitable for school.Low cut dresses likewise.If they want to dress like this in a disco, fair enough, but school should not be about dressing in a provocative manner.School uniforms,with knee length skirts sounds about right.After all, if they want to show they are serious , why not dress seriously rather than like sex objects?

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