More Than a Distraction: School Dress Codes

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

School dress codes have been a topic of heated discussion for years, but it seems that recently stories have been making headlines not just of dress code violations, but of students, particularly female students, making a stand against them. Many female students have been making headlines in the last year or two as they stand up to their school administrations for alleged sexist policies regarding clothing. These students allege that they are being told to change what they’re wearing because they are distracting the male students, and are often made to change at school or are sent home. With the recent conversation, the rules and their purpose need a second look.

Growing up, nothing made me more conscious of my changing, pubescent body than my middle school dress code. Starting from age ten I hit a growth spurt that lasted about four years; I grew out of my clothes quickly, and my parents couldn’t keep up with my need for a new wardrobe every season. My body was also in limbo; with my height and newly emerging pre-teen body, I didn’t fit into the clothes and styles of my childhood, but was also too young for the mature couture of the women’s sections. I felt stuck and uncomfortable; I wanted to be able to wear something other than t-shirts and Bermuda shorts like my shorter friends. When I did venture out of this small box of clothing choices, however, I was met with consequences that made me feel even more uncomfortable than a preteen girl already does.

I vividly remember walking into school one day in the spring of seventh grade; it was hot, muggy Virginia weather, but I felt cool and confident in my new pair of plaid shorts that all of my friends were wearing (it was 2007, please forgive me). Inches from my locker during the morning rush, I was stopped by our vice principal. She informed me that my shorts were “too short” and “inappropriate,” then had me reach down with both hands at my side as she used the length of my arms to illustrate this fact. As the tip of my middle finger just reached past the end of my new shorts, I was instructed to go and change into my gym shorts, and not to wear those shorts to school again. I was humiliated. And my humiliation continued throughout the day, as I was branded with those gym shorts to everyone who saw me as a girl who had violated the dress code. That humiliation happened again when my male seventh grade math teacher stopped me as I walked into his classroom one morning wearing a tank top. He held up his three fingers to the strap of my tank top to show me that I had, again, violated the dress code by wearing an “inappropriate” shirt; the dress code stated that sleeve lengths must be at least three fingers wide. I was relegated back to the gym locker room to change into my gym shirt, and was again faced with the humiliation of being one of “those girls,” and missing the first twenty minutes of my math class. At the time, being only twelve years old, I didn’t have the courage to stand up to that vice principal or math teacher to point out to them the subjectivity of this code. I didn’t explain to the vice principal that arm lengths differ, but short lengths are the same; my arms went past the end of my shorts and they seemed to show more leg, but when you’re six inches taller than the other girls your age, you have more leg to show. I didn’t point out to my math teacher the difference in finger widths between a middle-aged man and a pre-teen girl; my tank top was wider than my three fingers—I had checked before I wore it to school that day.

I say all of this not to bemoan my middle school experience—I have a diary for that—or to condemn those individual educators. They are small parts of a much larger problem affecting many schools, typically public, around the country, that tends to target girls. Speaking from personal experience, I rarely saw boys subjected to the shame of changing into their gym uniforms during the day, but it was a regular occurrence for girls. For me, it was the first time I saw my body as something that needed to be covered, hidden, or seen as a distraction. It was a quick and harsh ushering into adulthood, and the burden of womanhood. My legs, something I’d been proud of for their strength and speed, became objects that needed to be covered and hidden. What became even more clear in the phrasing of the reprimands handed out by the teachers and administrators at my school, was that it wasn’t for reasons of respect or professionalism that our young bodies needed to be covered; it was because they were a distraction, same as the gang signs and swear words that were also banned by the dress code. I became very conscious of my body, something that has stuck with me and which I’ve almost accepted as a part of being a woman.

What, then, is the solution? Is there a value to school dress codes? There are arguments with merit on both sides. What is clear to me is that our focus has been on the wrong thing, and the consequence is the objectification and sexualization of girls’ bodies in a place they should feel safe to learn. Instead of going to math class, I was made painfully aware that my body was something that needed to be covered immediately at the expense of my education.

It’s important that we remember this when framing the rules of a dress code and the language we use to enforce it. It’s important to remember why there’s a dress code—and it’s not to police girls’ bodies because they may distract boys, which is often cited as a reason girls are reprimanded for dress code violations. Dress codes should be a tool to teach children the importance of respect for their education and certain spaces, not a tool for shaming them. Certain elements of a dress code reflect this sentiment: no hats on indoor, and no gang symbols or profanity. These are rules that can be applied to all students, and serve the purpose of maintaining a safe and respectful environment to encourage learning. There are arguments for more modest dress that applies to all genders, and they may have merit. I hope for all seventh grade girls in the future that they can be guided in their dress by their schools not to reduce “distractions” for the boys, but to respect themselves and their environment to grow into confident, educated women.

My extremely awkward first day of 8th grade picture--thanks Dad!

My extremely awkward first day of 8th grade picture--thanks Dad!