On How Dress Codes Teach Sexism

Submitted by Cece Jane, from El Segundo, California

“I didn’t graduate from high school because I was distracted by a girl’s shoulders in class”… said nobody ever.  So why do administrators and parents fight to ban clothing that shows the slightest amount of female skin?

My school’s Student Handbook provides the following dress code:  “In order to reflect an academic culture and an environment worthy of being called distinguished students are expected to maintain an appearance that reflects learning as a priority.  Students may not create a health or safety hazard or be a distraction which would interfere with the educational process.”

At my school, girls are made to cover up at school because as I am told they “might distract boys;” I suppose this distraction is a “safety hazard” and does not reflect that “learning is a priority” to me.  This dress code policy teaches the wrong morals to girls as well as adolescent boys. These sexist dress codes skew the rules against girls’ dress. How is a girl’s bra strap inappropriate, while a boy’s boxers are not? It is not acceptable for a girl to wear a short skirt showing her legs, but a guy can wear a tank top showing his muscles.

When the weather was unusually warm this fall we received the following message from the school “Students: especially the ladies, just a reminder now that the warm weather is back. Please make sure you are following the school dress code.  Remember no undergarments showing, no tube tops or tube dresses; no mid-drifts or halter tops; no short shorts or low-cut blouses.  Save those skimpy styles for the beach or elsewhere.  This is school.”

Sadly, since I started middle school, I cannot count the amount of times a teacher or administrator has made a statement similar to the one above – telling me my clothes “distract boys” from paying attention in school. Since when did it become my job to help them pay attention? I have been a straight-A student my whole life, and there have always been distractions, but I learned how to pay attention for myself, and nobody helped me. When people argue that girls distract boys, they are
essentially saying that a boy’s learning is more important than a girl’s. Girls are constantly sent out of class because of their outfits. They have to miss valuable lessons because their shorts were “too short.” It sends the message that it is okay for boys to objectify women, and makes it places the burden of prevention on the girls’ shoulders.  If I wear a short skirt is it my fault if I’m raped? Does my short skirt automatically make it ok to rape me? Women are taught to modify ourselves to those of men, hiding our bodies and limiting our personal expression so that men may remain focused.

Of course, there is also the tacit message from the administrators that we are somehow “slutty” because of how we dress.  I am not slutty because it is hot and I want to wear a tank top that shows my bra.  I am not slutty because I am 5’2 and prefer a short skirt to elongate my body.  I am not slutty because my belly button shows. Is it unthinkable that I might like how I look in an outfit? That the outfit boosts my self-confidence and makes me feel good?

I implore my school, administrators, teachers to change the dress code policy . I implore parents to complain to the school board.  I implore girls to speak up. When you see an unfair policy, say something. DO NOT be afraid to stand up for yourself, for your body, and for your freedom of expression- and don’t let anything get in the way of your education.

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