School Dress Codes Are Still Racist and Sexist in 2018

Absurd dress code violations are constantly in the news, from a student penalized for not wearing a bra to girls kicked out of prom. Many of these incidents have a common thread: It’s usually female students who are unfairly singled out, often with sexist claims like “her dress was distracting.”

But the National Women’s Law Center says this isn’t just a gender problem. In the group’s new report “Dress Coded,” researchers show how dress codes tend to systematically profile girls — particularly black girls and those who are “curvier.”

There’s a reason for this: Dress codes reinforce biases rooted in both sexism and racism when it comes to how people should look.

The people charged with enforcing dress codes carry their own biases, too. Black girls tend to be more sexualized than white girls, thanks to a long and racist history — and that means they attract increased scrutiny for violations like wearing clothing that’s “too tight.” White girls and black girls may face different penalties for wearing substantively the same clothing, especially when any protest may be treated as “insubordination” when it comes from a black student.

Natural hair is also punished in dress codes — some of which may outright forbid certain kinds of hairstyles, whether Afros or braids. Some schools also ban hair wraps and similar coverings, which tend to be more commonly worn by black students than white ones.

In the moment, being punished for having a body that doesn’t fit white expectations can be humiliating and demoralizing. A student who repeatedly hears that her fat body is unacceptable, for instance, will likely experience stress around body image. Likewise, a student told that her natural hair is offensive gets a regular reminder of anti-black attitudes.

But these unjust dress codes also tend to stigmatize students for their classmates, too. Students internalize the idea that certain kinds of bodies or hair are acceptable, while others are not. And every time a student is ordered to cover up or change, that’s a disruption to her education.

Yet, girls are repeatedly told that they’re being disruptive by having bodies in public, and that they have an obligation to change the way they dress or style their hair to avoid “distracting” boys and prevent sexual harassment. This is a discredit to boys, who are perfectly capable of sharing a room with a girl wearing clothing she feels is comfortable and stylish. It’s also a totally backwards way of dealing with sexual harassment — why should potential victims be responsible for preventing it?

It’s a really big disruption, in some cases. Some schools may suspend students for dress code violations, taking them out of school for a day or more. Suspensions tend to disproportionately target black students to begin with, and they can start a feeder to the school-to-prison pipeline, depriving students of access to education. The NWLC says some of these suspensions are carried out illegally, with schools sending students home but not giving them formal suspensions in order to keep their suspension numbers down.

Despite the substantial amount of criticism levied at dress codes, schools are slow to reform. It’s not because they don’t have a model for reframing the way they think about dress codes. One Chicago-area school, for example, has adopted a neutral dress code that spells out broad categories of prohibited items — depictions of drug use, for example — rather than providing a gendered “what not to wear” list.

More schools should be adopting dress codes like this one to mitigate racism and sexism in school policies, and to improve access to education for all — not just the white boys who rarely get “dress coded.”

Photo Credit: Gabriel Lopez/Unsplash

52 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 months ago

Dress codes are put into place so that the clothes worn reflect an image that the institution wants to portray (in the case of an employer), or to keep school children from being too disruptive or distracting in their dress. Girls need to dress modestly, they need to be taught to act with modesty.

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Karen H
Karen H5 months ago

Females of color are discriminated against when they want to wear their hair "natural", yet school dress codes list wigs on the "forbidden list". What's the answer? Some dress codes are so confusing even the school doesn't know what's okay and what's "thou shalt no wear this".

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Richard Anonymous
Richard Anonymous5 months ago

There have been a lot of comments about school uniforms. School uniforms that require teenage girls to wear plaid miniskirts are ridiculous. Imagine if a major employer such as the government, IBM, or even a school board required all of its female employees to wear plaid miniskirts while the men wore pants.

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Barbara M
Barbara M5 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Colin C
Colin C5 months ago

My thoughts are just to have a uniform white unisex shirt and blue or black trousers, slacks, shorts. It keeps it very simple and does not impose a financial burden on parents.

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Henry M
Henry M5 months ago

At my school, hey enforce the dress code by having the classrooms be very cold, so students will want to cover up.

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Nancy BIELECKIE
Nancy BIELECKIE5 months ago

I really think that there is too much emphasis on dress code and think that if the child is dressed, all important private parts are covered, is clean, mostly, and has not got abusive statements on their clothing, they should be at school learning, not worrying about what they are wearing.

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Freya H
Freya H5 months ago

Yes, schools should have some sort of dress code - but it needs to be reasonable and as culturally/racially neutral as possible. A simple code requiring that kids cover certain areas of the body, not wear anything with obscenities or gang symbols - that should work. Uniforms are nice, but not all parents can afford them. Craig, have you seen how some adults dress in public?

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Craig Z
Craig Zimmerman5 months ago

Schools should try to mimic the world of adulthood as much as possible and that includes dressing properly.

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Leanne K
Leanne K5 months ago

So true, dress coded or picked on and punished unfairly

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