Dress Codes: Myth versus Fact

Few topics are as controversial today as dress codes. As the weather gets warmer every spring, more and more girls (and boys!) around the world raise their voices against the policing of girls' bodies.
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Few topics are as controversial today as dress codes. As the weather gets warmer every spring, more and more girls (and boys!) around the world raise their voices against the policing of girls' bodies. From witty posters to hilarious (and true) senior quotes, today's teenagers, such as myself, are doing everything we can to raise awareness about how unfair dress codes are. However, we constantly battle dress code proponents who insist that the ways in which girls dress are distracting, inappropriate, and dangerous. The world needs to separate the myths from the facts.

This is an adaptation of a document I created during my high school's own dress code controversy. It represents my opinions about dress codes first and foremost, but it also represents many of my peers' ideas as well. While not every anti-dress code activist will agree with every statement below, all ideas are worth considering and nothing negative can come from constructive discourse.

"Dress codes are needed in a work environment."

It's difficult to classify what a work environment is. Should we wear suits to school? Should men have to wear collared shirts? Why can people wear Uggs, sweat pants, sneakers, or baggy sports attire if this is a work environment? In some jobs, people go to work wearing whatever they want. In others, you go to work wearing full regalia. If one is an actor/athlete/dancer, one may work in much more revealing clothes. In an office, a large-breasted woman's blouse and blazer may show cleavage, but her clothing would still be considered professional. Additionally, for students, schools are not work environments. They are learning environments, which means that they are places where students can observe the policing of 14-18 year old girls' bodies and learn that this is normal and acceptable. If high school is to prepare us to be fair and thoughtful citizens in the future, it cannot propagate rape culture and body shaming.

"Where do we draw the line? Can people show up to school naked?"

The majority of girls in the world wouldn't show up to school wearing anything more revealing than they wear already. Society shames girls' bodies enough that showing large amounts of skin is looked down upon, so many girls wouldn't be comfortable appearing in anything more revealing than shorts and a tank top. This makes it highly improbable that anyone would show up to school naked.

There is a valid argument about barring nudity in schools. Not because there is anything shameful about nudity, but because it would put teachers in an uncomfortable position and, most importantly, it is health hazard in a shared facility.

One cannot employ the slippery slope argument, and we hope that this discourse will continue down the road as people continue to question the dress code. Perhaps in 50 years people will go to school naked, just like how over 50 years ago women couldn't have worn pants or short skirts to school.

"Dress codes really are not a violation of Title IX."

Title IX, part of the 1972 Education Amendments, states that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance". Dress codes may not legally violate Title IX. However, they are in violation of the philosophy behind Title IX. If one accept the fact that dress codes are inherently gender based in that girls' bodies are policed more than boys', then taking away a girl's classroom time by reprimanding her when she could be learning is a violation of Title IX. This is an argument we hope will continue to be explored.

"Boys are dresscoded too! My son was dress coded for wearing a bro tank, so it's obviously not an issue of sexism."

While boys have been dress coded for wearing bro tanks or for having saggy pants, the large majority of complaints made about how a student is dressing are against girls. This stems from historical expectations that require women to be modest and is rooted in the idea that there is something sinful about a woman's body. Men have never been subjected to the same standards of modesty that women have been, and that stems from the institutions of the patriarchy and biological instincts. While boys may be dresscoded for wearing nothing but their underwear to school, that is an abnormal situation. Girls are dress coded for wearing reasonable, a la mode, and normal clothing every day and are targeted based on teachers' own subjective opinions about modesty. We also don't believe that boys should be dress coded for wearing bro tanks because we believe that boys and girls should be able to control themselves and not be distracted by one another's bodies in a learning environment.

"Well, what do you want, a uniform? THAT would certainly bring about gender equality in the way people dress."

For the most part, many of us do not want a uniform, and it is incorrect to assume that uniforms bring gender equality or not shame bodies. A uniform assigned to girls will most likely adhere to these previous standards of covering knees, cleavage, etc, which is completely against what we believe. We also don't think men should have to dress in business attire or cover their skin. We think everyone should wear whatever they want, with equal freedom/standards for men and women.

"Would you rather have more specificity in the code but have a stricter set of rules involving measurements, or keep the dress code vague?"

We don't believe that these options are mutually exclusive. A positive goal is to create a system where teachers can't dress code students for offenses which aren't in the school code of conduct. Many dress codes are so vague that it is nearly impossible for a teacher to truly cite someone for a dress code violation and be able to back up that citation with the rule book. While this works in our favor since we don't think students should get dress coded, we understand that this is confusing and frustrating for many. Thus, we believe that we should get a set of rules on paper and fight the battle of making them as non-sexist and repressive as possible.

"What exactly is the problem with the way people are dress coded?"

In my high school, we held a lunch-time meeting for anyone questioning the dress code, and one-fourth of the school attended. Students told their own stories about:
  • How they had been called out in front of the class for their "underwear" showing;
  • How teachers had walked up to them in the hall and forcibly pulled their shirts down to cover their midriffs;
  • How they had been dress coded for the tightness of their shirts or because their shirts were strapless (neither of which is in the dress code);
  • How different body types were unfairly targeted;
  • How they can go a full year wearing the same shirt and then suddenly be reprimanded for doing so one day;
  • How they can go to nearly all classes in a day and only be dress coded for what they were wearing in the last class;
  • How they've become afraid to wear shorts or v-necked shirts because they've felt shamed by teachers;
  • And how, in contrast, other students have worn shirts with psychedelic designs, onesie pajamas, and even protruding horns, and have never been called out for distracting others.

The way even my school's minimal dress code has been enforced is inconsistent, humiliating, logically flawed, and psychologically damaging for the students who go to our school. These are occurrences which are specific to our school, but are representative of other difficulties students have faced involving dress code enforcement.

"Midriffs are not school appropriate."

Many a battle has been fought over girls showing midriffs.

Who is to dictate what skin is more appropriate than other parts of skin? The skin on my midriff is the same as the skin on my face. A belly button has no (normal) sexual association and is not inappropriate other than the inappropriateness you, personally, assign it. As long as wearing bandeaus, bikinis, and short crop tops is too casual for school at this time in our society, I won't advocate for entire stomachs to be shown. But I believe that a few inches (the length of your thumb) of midriff being shown isn't inappropriate and isn't a distraction. Women who don't conform with society's tough body standards are more likely to be called out for their midriffs showing, and this is a prejudiced disparity which cannot be allowed to exist in this school.

"Breasts are sexual organs, so they should be covered."

Breasts are not sexual organs. Breasts are considered by many to be the female equivalent of Adam's apples. They are considered to be sexual accessories, and most men are attracted to them biologically because it demonstrates that a woman has estrogen and breast milk who can nurse a child. This is the same reason why women are biologically attracted to men with larger Adam's apples, because it shows that testosterone levels are high. Should we make men with protruding Adam's apples cover them up?

"I don't want my son being around girls who dress inappropriately. It's against my family's moral code to show skin, and we feel it infringes upon our rights to have to see people's immodest dress at school."

If you don't want your son to see women dressed "inappropriately", you unfortunately might be living in the wrong country and/or time period.

The objectification of women and girls has permeated our society. One walks through a mall or drives down a highway anywhere in America and sees naked or scantily clad women in commercials and advertisements. It's not as though seeing a girl with an inch of midriff at school would be anything out of the ordinary in the broader context of our society. Additionally, women are usually permitted to show skin in a context that is controlled by and pleasing to men, yet we are shamed and condemned when we attempt to wear what we want by our own choice and to assert our own sexuality.

Furthermore, with that argument it is hard to draw the line about what offends people and what should be allowed. Some people are made uncomfortable by overweight people. Should overweight people be forced to get liposuction or wear clothes that don't show their shape? There are places in the country and world where people dislike black people. Should black people be forced to cover up their skin? These are extreme examples, but in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Your right to swing your arms ends where the other man's [or in this case, woman's] nose begins". We believe that our right to bodily autonomy cannot be compromised because of other people's personal beliefs, and part of coexisting in a society means understanding that others have different moral codes than yourself. We keep this in mind when we don't come to school naked and we ask that you keep it in mind when you attempt to impose your own morals upon the way that we present ourselves to the world.

"I really do think that girl who is showing skin is a distraction for my son."

This is part of the larger problem called rape culture.

Rape culture, a building block of the patriarchy, says that men have the license to do almost anything they want, that women are temptresses, and that if a woman is a victim to a man's assault/harassment/rape, it is her fault. This is a completely misogynistic view. Rape is never the victim's fault. Harassment is never the victim's fault. Any human who chooses to hurt or degrade another human is making the choice to do so themselves and a woman is never "asking for it".

Rape culture, in this case, surfaces as women are given the onus of covering themselves, often against their will, to protect themselves from being the subjects of harassment and to protect boys in school from possible distractions. However, instead of enforcing this archaic and sexist viewpoint, we should be teaching boys not to look at girls inappropriately, and giving them the tools to not get distracted and focus on their own learning experience.

Furthermore, this viewpoint is completely insulting to boys and men as well. Boys shouldn't be treated like they are animals, like they lack the basic self control to not ogle at a girl's body and thus need to be shielded by action taken by girls themselves. Boys are cognizant, autonomous human beings who are capable of examining and reforming their behavior when necessary. They do not need to be coddled, talked down to, or have their behavior dismissed with statements like "boys will be boys". Please don't patronize them or insult their intelligence by treating them like brainless and hormonal machines.

"I really don't think it's a big deal to ask girls just to throw on a sweater over whatever they are wearing."

Actually, it is a big deal. Actions like these train girls to think of and define themselves based on the male gaze. Dress codes recontextualize the way women and girls view themselves. When you tell a girl to put on a sweater, you take control of her body. When you do this, even if you say it's for her "own good", you take away her agency. You tell her that your body is not her own.

This is put extremely well by Soraya Chemaly on the Huffington Post:

"What is a girl supposed to think in the morning when she wakes up and tries to decide what to wear to school? They aren't idiots. The logical conclusion of the "distracting" issue is, "Will I turn someone on if I wear this?" Now who is doing the sexualizing? My daughters would never have thought these things without the help of their school."

Dress codes embed hypersexuality within girls, and this aspect is often not spoken about in the overarching discussions about dress codes in the context of a work environment or not distracting boys. However, the continuation of such restrictions on how girls dress is damaging psychologically and a huge part of rape culture.

(For more information on this, please read "What Do Dress Codes Say About Girls' Bodies" by Ms. Magazine)

"Girls need to wear bras..."

Women do not need to wear bras. Many elect to do so because it is more comfortable for them or because society condemns not wearing bras. But there is no biological or legal reason that bras need to be worn.

There are many overweight men in this world who have larger breasts than many women do and who do not need to wear bras. Similarly, many girls can see men's nipples through their tops. There is no difference between a male and female nipple anatomically, and the only difference between male pectorals and female breasts is some extra tissue. If you think about it, there is no reason a female breast or nipple should have to be covered more than pectorals have to be.

"...But I don't want to see their bras or bra straps!"

Bra straps aren't and should not be distractions for men, women, or teachers. If society expects women to wear bras, we cannot be punished for doing so. A bra strap is essentially the same as a tank top strap, and often women can't control if one slides down their shoulder or if their shirts shift. Honestly, most of the time we aren't even thinking about our bras because we are focused on learning and on school. As our peers should be. What is incredibly uncomfortable is when a teacher calls us out in front of the entire class for our "underwear" showing and then suddenly the educational integrity of the entire classroom has been compromised and we are shamed for something we can't help.

"I just don't want to see people's stomachs or thighs hanging out."

This is why we believe dress codes are prejudiced against different body types. People who are curvier, overweight, or who have much longer legs shouldn't be punished for what they can't control. It simply is not right that people's personal standards of what a "good body" looks like should be integrated into the rules. These rules are targeted even more at girls because of the unattainable standards for "perfect" or acceptable bodies that women live with. Men who are overweight are by and large not subjected to the same scrutiny that women are.

"Doesn't allowing girls to show a lot of skin just ingrain the idea that they are sexual objects in their heads? Aren't girls who display cleavage/thighs/stomach just victims of advertising campaigns that objectify women, and aren't they just aspiring to be looked at by men? Won't dress codes help girls overcome objectification, depression, eating disorders, and low self worth?"

Maybe. Maybe not. But what a girl wears should, as previously stated, be a girl's own choice above all else. If a girl wants to be looked at sexually, then she has every right to try to be. If a girl doesn't want to be looked sexually, then she shouldn't be, the same way men shouldn't have to have their bodies evaluated and appraised by leering men/women. Girls should have the right to dress as modestly or immodestly as they want. Girls shouldn't be punished for electing to wear a hijab, nor should they be punished for electing to show cleavage. Schools should not try to repress nor flaunt a woman's sexuality.

While the sentiment expressed above is well-intended, dress codes are a "band-aid" solution to a much larger problem and "fall short of being legitimately helpful" (see article listed above for more excerpts).

"Like it or not, you are minors and students. Parents and teachers have power over you and so you can't get what you want when it comes to how you dress. This is something you will just have to live with."

Once again, this may be the case. However, we have learned that High School is a place where students learn to question what has long been considered to be the norm. We understand that parents and teachers are in charge of supervising and disciplining us, and that while most students don't want to make trouble, there will always be others who do everything they can to aggravate teachers and parents and violate rules which shouldn't be violated. Yet every student should be able to have their say and have their voice thoughtfully and genuinely listened to. We are the future. We are the people who will be running businesses and the government in 30 years. And we hope to see a result emerge from this discourse which will affirm for us that our parents and teachers believe that our voices matter, and that what we've been taught applies to us as well as our elders.

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