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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

School: A Place to Learn Body-Shaming

Schools have imposed dress code policies on their students for decades. Dress requirements and restrictions have generally existed to limit student expression if it is feared that it will be disruptive to the learning environment or will violate the rights of others. Many people are in favor of dress codes, as adults are often required to dress professionally for their careers. While this is understandable and true, the restrictions these rules place on students are becoming more and more problematic as time goes on. Many dress code policies are dated, yet still enforced in today’s schools, which typically look very different than they did when the laws were established. This has led to many issues with students in schools, such as body shaming, and as such, has led to a greater understanding of the negative side effects of dress codes, which have failed to stay relevant.

The first dress code law was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. The case, known as Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, involved several high school students who were suspended from school for wearing black arm bands to school in a planned protest against the Vietnam War (FindLaw). The Court ultimately decided that schools can limit student expression if there is a valid concern that it could disrupt schoolwork and discipline. Today, most states have laws that allow local school boards to make dress code rules for students within their district to promote a safe, disciplined school environment and to encourage uniformity of student dress. For instance, dress codes that prohibit clothing that is vulgar, obscene, or worn in a manner that disrupts school activity are generally permitted and are fairly common whereas dress codes that censor student expression because educators do not like the message are generally not permitted. It seems reasonable that schools would have policies in place to regulate what students’ clothing might promote, such as drug use, racism, or violence. However, these same dress codes also regulate the type and style of clothing that students wear on the basis that some styles might be too revealing, thus creating a distraction to other students. It is these aspects of dress codes which seem to be causing uproar every day in schools throughout the country.

Looking over a dress code policy from just about any school in the United States, it is not difficult to see that the disproportionate restrictions for female students are far more specific than the restrictions placed upon male students. In addition to clothing that depicts vulgar language, weapons, drug / alcohol use, etc. being forbidden, male students are required to wear pants that do not sag below their waist and they must wear shoes. The requirements for female students often include shirts and blouses that are continuous from neckline to waist; shorts, dresses, and skirts no shorter than fingertip length; no exposure of the midsection, lower back, or shoulders; shirts that are not low-cut; and stretch pants or leggings must be worn with clothing long enough to cover the buttocks. Some schools ban leggings or yoga pants entirely. These restrictions often carry over to dances and prom. While the male students are simply required to wear a tuxedo or suit, the female students are all too frequently faced with problems regarding their attire. In some cases, female students are told to raise their arms, sit against a wall, or touch their toes while their attire is inspected or are asked to leave their proms because chaperones considered their dresses to be too sexual or provocative. Aside from feeling like their rights are being infringed upon, many female students feel a strong sense of injustice and that these restrictions are sending the wrong message. If girls are repeatedly told to cover their body parts to avoid causing a distraction to males or making anyone feel uncomfortable, what lesson are we teaching these students?

The message these policies send is that girls bodies are dangerous, powerful, and sexualized, and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them. It prepares them for a college life where women will be frequently exposed to sexual harassment, but where society will blame, question, and silence them while the perpetrators are rarely disciplined (Bates, 2015). It teaches young girls that they are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention, and that those wearing what could be considered sexy clothes are asking for such attention or response. Educators often excuse the behavior by saying things like boys will be boys, but doing so teaches girls that male entitlement to their body in public space is socially acceptable. When a school makes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behavior, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Rather than teaching young men to respect the boundaries of girls, young ladies are stripped of their sense of self-respect and expression. Another unfortunate result is the humiliation some girls face when being cited for dress code infractions. It can be disturbing and distressing for a girl to be called out for an outfit or a body part that an adult perceives as sexual when the student herself may not have perceived it the same way. This can ultimately evoke a strong sense of shame or guilt in young girls for being sexualized when they did not intend to be promiscuous. Dress codes can make girls feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in their bodies, which is the opposite of teaching them empowerment and self-love as they should be taught. Often when enforcing the dress code, administration or teachers cause a bigger disruption than their allegedly distracting outfits created in the first place. Some schools go so far as to make the students wear baggy gym shorts or brightly colored t-shirts emblazoned with the words “dress code violator” across the front. A Utah school digitally altered yearbook photos of girls who were thought to be showing too much skin by adding in longer sleeves and higher necklines to their clothing (Summers, 2014). Not only is the public nature of these citations embarrassing for the students, it sends a message to the other students that it is acceptable to body shame and humiliate someone for their differences. Additionally, when girls are pulled out of class or sent home for their dress code violations, some would argue that their male counterparts’ needs and education are being prioritized above their own.

Male students seem to have multiple advantages regarding both the restrictions and punishments given for dress codes and violations. The length of shorts, skirts, and dresses that girls are required to wear are hard to come by. Perhaps several decades ago when the laws were first created, it was easier to find clothing with longer hems. Unfortunately, today it is difficult to find longer shorts and dresses, as what is currently in style is what is available to students. Taller girls also have the disadvantage of shorts appearing shorter on them than other girls, and may have an extremely challenging time finding clothes that fit the way the school required them too. The same article of clothing might be deemed appropriate on one student, but inappropriate on another depending on their development or body type. It would be unfair to punish one student but not the other for wearing identical articles of clothing, and this further teaches these girls to be ashamed of their bodies or compare them to their peers when they should be celebrated for their differences. Males have the privilege of having of value-neutral clothing available to them; it is possible for them to choose clothing that does not send a particular message to the world. The simplicity of their wardrobes and how easy it is to abide by the standards of most dress codes enables boys with any body types to be treated equally. Their wardrobes and grooming are relatively cheap and consume little time compared to the typical appearance females are expected to keep. The ways in which male privilege sets females up for failure are countless, but it is unfortunate that girls and boys alike are taught this and are taught that is acceptable from such a young age.

Female students are not the only ones who face injustices through dress code policies. Every day, transgender and gender non-conforming students struggle with the non-inclusive governing of rules. For instance, a student who was assigned the gender of male at birth, but identifies as a female may be forbidden to wear women’s clothing. A student who was assigned a female gender at birth but identifies as male might be denied the right to wear a tuxedo to prom. There are several documented court cases for instances such as these. One such instance took place in 2009 in Mississippi. A student, Ceara Sturgis, was active in school athletics and the school marching band. Ceara identified as female, but dressed in clothes that were typically associated with the male gender. She felt uncomfortable in clothes that are typically associated with the female gender, such as dresses and skirts. When Ceara had her senior portraits taken for the school yearbook, she was asked to wear a black drape across her shoulders, which had the appearance of a dress and was the required garment for female students in the official yearbook photos. She was so uncomfortable and embarrassed that she began to cry. At the suggestion of her mother, she tried on the tuxedo, which was the required garment for male students for the official yearbook photos, and ultimately chose to have her photo taken in the tuxedo. When she turned in her portrait to the school, officials informed her mother that they would not allow the photo of Ceara wearing the male tuxedo instead of the female drape to be included in the yearbook. Despite sending a letter to the school requesting inclusion of her photo, Ceara’s photo and name were completely omitted from the yearbook (Johnson, 2017). Though this lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, it is a common example of what many public school students face. In situations like this, it is not restricted to one gender; both male and female students suffer from gender-specific dress codes. Schools enforce different rules, but some states include policies such as boys being prohibited from wearing earrings, or having long hair because they are considered to be female attire. Policies that do not yet have written rules for transgender students are discriminatory and could potentially force students to conform to a gender that they might not identify with or that makes them feel uncomfortable. Students who were assigned a male gender at birth and identify as such would never be required to wear dresses or skirts, so requiring a female student who identifies as male to wear them, as in Ceara Sturgis’ case, is completely unfair. Schools should not enforce a school’s dress code more strictly against transgender and gender nonconforming students than other students.

While issues with dress codes are regularly arising, some good has come out of the backlash. Through social media platforms and lawsuits that have been filed surrounding incidences, a great deal of awareness about these issues have been brought to people’s attention. Students at many schools have banded together to fight to make dress codes equal and inclusive. At a school in Kentucky, a female middle school student even produced a documentary called Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code. The documentary features interviews with her classmates and principal and explores the negative impact biased rules can have on girls’ confidence and sense of self (Zhou, 2015). Actions such as these promote strength amongst students everywhere to stand up for what they believe is right. Some schools are adjusting their policies in response to petitions and walkouts staged by students. Following an incident in Kentucky where a female student was sent home for wearing a shirt that showed her collarbone, the principal even called to set up a meeting and said he would be willing to amend the dress code if the student was willing to put together a proposal that was realistic, measurable, and professional to which everyone could agree (Kim, 2015). This kind of response is exactly why students need to continue advocating for their rights.

Evanston Township High School in Illinois has recently gained accolades for releasing an updated version of their dress code policy. The dress code philosophy, posted on the school’s website, states:

Evanston Township High School’s student dress code supports equitable educational access and is written in a manner that does not reinforce stereotypes. To ensure effective and equitable enforcement of this dress code, school staff shall enforce the dress code consistently and in a manner that does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group based on race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type/size (ETHS).

While the policy does include requirements to cover certain body parts, such as genitals and nipples, it explicitly states that there are no cleavage restrictions. Students must wear a shirt, pants/jeans or the equivalent, and shoes; it does not specify whether males or females must adhere to the restrictions, it just requires that all students must wear these articles of clothing. They even list items that students are allowed to wear. Commonly banned items appear on the list, such as tank tops, pajamas, halter tops, ripped jeans, spaghetti straps, and shirts that expose undergarment waistbands or bra straps. Clothing that depicts violence, drug use, hate words, or pornography are, however, prohibited. The changes this school made were a result of hearing their students concerns and requests. Being able to express themselves directly impacts their ability to be inspired to learn, and being free of disruptions to their school day or having to worry about being policed is exactly what the students asked for and received.

The changes some schools are beginning to make to their dress code policies gives hope that schools everywhere are moving in the direction. If policies that were created decades ago could be revised to reflect more modern standards of dress and to be more inclusive of all genders and gender identities, schools could become a place where students feel comfortable and accepted and focus on their education. Beyond that, if harassment occurs as a result of what someone else is wearing, the perpetrator should be held fully responsible for their actions, and the victim should not be blamed for their outfit choice. That is the correct message we want to be sending to our students, and most current dress code policies enforce exactly the opposite.

Works Cited

Bates, L., 2015 May 22, “How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture.” Time. http://time.com/3892965/everydaysexism-school-dress-codes-rape-culture/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Evanston Township High School. Student Dress Code. 22 Aug. 2017, https://www.eths.k12.il.us/Page/1381. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

FindLaw, “School Dress Codes.” http://education.findlaw.com/student-rights/school-dress-codes.html. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Johnson, P., 1 March 2017, “Wading Through the Federal Thicket of School Dress Code Jurisprudence: How the Supreme Court Can Protect Students’ Rights Control Their Appearance.” http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.libprox1.slcc.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=81fbb5f3-5f64-4842-9240-e07a87223943%40sessionmgr4010. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Kim, U.K., 2015 Aug. 17, “Kentucky student violates dress code with exposed collarbone.” Today. https://www.today.com/style/kentucky-student-violates-high-school-dress-code-exposed-collarbone-t39211. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Summers, J., 2014 June 14, “The Anatomy of a Dress Code.” http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/06/12/321268424/the-anatomy-of-a-dress-code#. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Zhou, L. 2015 Oct. 2015, “The Sexism of School Dress Codes.” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/school-dress-codes-are-problematic/410962/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

Keywords: Dress-code inequalities

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