Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

It’s Time For School Dress Codes To Grow Up

Share this post:

Getty Images

School is fraught with all kinds of issues. Standardized tests to pass, social and behavioral issues to navigate. Bullying. And clothes. Don’t forget the clothes.

Apparently clothes are a big danger to our children. Specifically our boys. Well, not just clothes. But the girls who wear them. Their bodies and the clothes that they put on them are a distraction to our boys.

This is what the dress codes in many schools imply. It’s also what is frequently cited as justification for singling out girls in violation of dress codes.

As the new school year begins, social media is once again flooded with pictures of girls who were sent home or forced to change clothes. In one notable incident, a girl was instructed to put a scarf on to cover her collarbone. Yes. Because now collarbones are provocative too. The Principal’s statement in regards to this incident?

“Certain outfits that [female students] wore created this situation where guys would make inappropriate statements, and there was a distraction to the learning environment based on what some of the folks were wearing at school.

This man who -is paid to lead and teach young people- just blamed the girls at his school for the inappropriate behavior of some “guys.” Let that sink in for a minute.

Last year we had the younger generation schooling administrators on the sexism in the school dress code policies. There were the yoga pant clad students carrying signs to school that read “Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?” There were the middle schoolers in New Jersey who got #IAmMoreThanADistraction trending.

What these girls were pointing out with their civil disobedience was a glaring issue facing school aged girls all over our country.

Dress codes sexualize young girls.

The bulk of school dress codes are aimed at girls. No tank tops or spaghetti straps. No exposed shoulders. No cleavage. No tight fighting yoga pants or leggings.

Girls are being singled out at school. They are made to line up and pass “fingertip tests”  when wearing shorts and skirts. We’ve seen a School Superintendent refer to girls dressed immodestly as skanks. My own daughter was forced to wear a cardigan from the school Lost and Found because she was wearing a sundress. In the 1st Grade. This is a problem.


All of this sends a clear message to our young girls. They are being told that walking around in their bodies is too much for boys to handle. They are being told that they will give boys impure thoughts. That they’re very existence, unless covered appropriately, is responsible for other student’s education and behavior.

These girls are being embarrassed.




It’s a story as old as time. Women and girls bear the burden of covering up. Women are walking temptations. Victorian times had women covering their ankles. Some religions require women to swim in full length dresses. Some tout the phrase “Modest is hottest.” The irony in that phrase is worthy of 1000 words unto itself.

But girls are fighting back. These young girls are reminding everyone that they are more than their bodies. That their bodies serve real practical functions, amazing feats, power and strength. Their bodies are more than objects to be ogled.

And let’s not forget. These are young girls. These are girls just trying to understand their growing bodies. These are girls going through puberty much sooner than previous generations. These are girls just trying to dress comfortably or maybe fashionably.

Let’s try to remember that these are growing girls who’s bodies change overnight. The skirt that fit last week might be noticeably shorter this week. The shirt that wasn’t tight last month might show cleavage this month. Let’s remember how hard it is to go through these teen years with ever changing bodies and moods and temperaments. And let’s acknowledge that girls who are more physically developed than their peers are getting called out more often.

Let’s remember that these are girls.

They are not trying to seduce.

They are trying to learn.

They are not aiming to distract.

They are usually trying to fit in and fly under the radar.

They don’t view their bodies as sexual. They don’t think of their bodies as a means to produce “impure thoughts.” Not until you suggest it, imply it, or outright state it as you wave your sacred dress code in their confused faces.

Many of us rail against objectification of women in media. Many of us rant about the sexualization of women’s bodies and how that contributes to rape culture.

Yet, we’re letting it happen in our schools. To our young girls. By people we pay to educate them.

What effect is this having on our girls? Well, we’re teaching them young. We’re teaching them that society will view them as sexual even as they try to learn.

But what about the boys? Exactly. We’re not giving boys much credit. These policies tell them that they are easily distracted. They tell them that they have little or no self control. They imply that they shouldn’t even try to have self control. It’s also suggesting ideas that may not have been a part of their mindset to begin with. 

A bra strap is not going to send them into a dizzying flurry of hormones that will render them unable to be educated. Leggings or yoga pants or any tight pants are not going to cause such a distraction that they won’t be able to function. No. But do you know what does cause that kind of disruption and distraction? Singling the girls out.

photo: so

We’re sending our kids off to school, entrusting teachers and administrators with educating them. We want our kids to learn to follow rules. To show respect. To respect the educators. To respect others. To respect themselves.

I’m not so sure that these dress codes are serving that purpose so well. Maybe it’s time for the school dress code policies to grow up.

We need to remind our schools. These girls are more than their physical appearance. They are more than temptations. They are more than distractions. By the looks of these protests, they are much more. They are a force to be reckoned with.

78 Responses

  1. I agree with this! I’ve had many bad memories with school dress codes that I eventually just gave up and took the repercussions of dressing the way I wanted. It seems dress codes are getting worse each year. Soon it’ll again be a sin to show ankles! It’s quite ridiculous.
    I’ve noticed some rules that regard boys’ attire that are a bit ridiculous. My best friend used to go to a school that didn’t allow boys to wear nail polish or have earrings, or wear anything remotely “feminine”. I felt bad for him, because, along the same lines as above, nail polish and earrings aren’t a distraction. :/
    Dress codes make it sound like boys are single minded and girls are incompetent of dressing themselves. Which is neither the case.

    1. There are so many things wrong with it. The fact that boys can’t wear nail polish? Ridiculous. This is society/schools imposing their ideas of morality and “normal” on kids. There are stories of girls getting kicked out of proms for wearing pants. ???? I’m of the mind that kids/ teachers, whoever should be allowed to express themselves. Tattoos on teachers, piercings, whatever they want. Crazy colored hair, mohawks… boys wearing skirts. Why does this matter? These things only cause a distraction because adults make a big deal out of them. Kids are pretty open minded and not phased by “different.” Until they learn to be phased by it. I wrote a piece last year about a seven year old girl who got suspended for her hair. She is black and had dreadlocks. Her parents handled it beautifully. They repeatedly explained that they allow their kids to express themselves and support their children in this. And they pulled her out of that school.

      And you’re exactly right. These dress codes assume that boys are single minded and girls are incompetent at dressing themselves. Dumbing down and assuming the worst for sure.

  2. It seems I am not as liberated as you, seriously. I completely agree in dress codes and in modesty. I think a shorts can be too short and a top too tight. Not because I am teaching my child to worry about the boys and the distraction to them but because I am teaching my daughter that her body is precious and is to be treated as such. We do not usually parade our precious belongings all over the place as if it is has no value.

    Correct me if I am wrong but when I see what some pre-teens and teens wear it does not take a rocket scientist or psychologist to see their intent. It is clear. While I agree that some girls do wear their clothing even short shorts for comfort and leggings for fashion but so many more are quite aware of their sexual appeal. I do not believe that girls should be embarrassed of what their bodies look like or of their curves but what is reason to display it, especially at school.

    I remember back in my day girls would wear scanty clothes not only for the boys but for the teacher as well. Did dress code sexualize our children, or their natural hormones flowing in their bodies combined with society, movies, commercials, tv shows, designers etc So do we allow our girls to dress as we choose in order to correct the sexualisation of girls? It might work, if men and boys see enough skin it won’t be a distraction to anyone and if girls know every other girl dresses half naked then their showing bodies too wont seem inappropriate?

    Its interesting how we associate liberty with exposing our bodies and bondage with covering it up. Where did that thinking come from.

    I have a fourteen year old daughter and I encourage her to dress appropriately. Her shorts do have to pass the finger tip test even when not going to school, no I don’t actually check I just eye ball it. I do not want her wearing skirts that expose her behind, call me old fashion. But you guys go ahead and change society’s thinking from the bottom up, I will wait before I catch up.

    1. I don’t think you and I disagree as much as you think we do. I have absolutely no problem with modesty. And I definitely will lay down the law with my own girls. But I will not EVER do it in a way that shames them. All of these stories I mentioned were extreme reactions to the girls outfits. These were not girls wearing “booty shorts.” These were not girls wearing midriff exposing shirts to school. I think there is a place for dress codes. I just think there’s too much ambiguity in how they are enforced. I think some of the specific policies are wrong-minded. I have read many accounts where two girls were wearing similar outfits and the girl who was more developed was singled out. I have seen the written policies that actually state “body type DOES matter when enforcing these codes.” I think that is wrong.

      And you’re not the only one who responded that girls don’t view their bodies as “sexual.” Of course some girls do. But these codes and the way they are (often, apparently) enforces imply that all of the girls are trying to flaunt it. I’m pretty sure a girl wearing yoga pants just wants to be comfortable most of the time. And here’s the thing, it’s being done to young girls. When my daughter was seven, they sent her to the office to borrow a sweater from the lost and found. Because she was wearing a sundress. She was humiliated and mortified. To this day she stress about what to wear. She’ll wear bermuda shorts and still worry about the length (she’s 11 now) So I think that it’s just gone a little… no, way too far. That being said, I do understand where you’re coming from and I get it. I

  3. I have all boys, so I really don’t have much experience with this.

    I agree with you that the justification for these rules (distracts the boys) is not giving the young men any credit whatsoever, and also places the burden on the young women to be responsible for the behavior of the opposite sex…which is completely asinine. I think I disagree a bit that young women aren’t thinking of their bodies in sexual ways.

    Even without the dress codes, sexualization of women is everywhere. Movies, music, TV shows, commercials, magazines. And MTV especially. You can’t escape it. I haven’t seen the statistics recently, but I’m betting a good portion of these young women are already sexually active.

    I’m pretty sure it’s already been disproven by multiple studies that predatory men don’t choose their victims based on their fashion choices, so these rules are unneeded and likely made to force young women to adhere to conservative notions of what a woman should be. Dress codes can be good things or bad things. I like the idea behind having a uniform code (where all students have to wear the same apparel). If everyone is wearing the same thing it’s hard to single anyone out. The rules for young women are a bit excessive in a lot of places, though, and some of the stories I’ve read about young women getting kicked out of dances for their attire often leaves me irate.

    It really is a fine line, I think. Some rules are needed obviously. But as a man and a father to all boys, I don’t consider myself qualified to really have any input on what the changes to these rules should be.

    1. Yes, my blanket statement of “these girls don’t view their bodies as sexual” is a point a lot of people are taking issue with. I’m sure some girls do. Most of these stories I profiled are middle school girls.

      And you’re absolutely right, predators will prey on anyone, no matter how the victim is dressed. And it is a very fine line. I don’t have a problem with a school having a dress code. Not at all. I think they legally have to have some parameters. I don’t remember girls being humiliated when I was in school. And there were definitely girls violating the dress code. But they would quietly take them to the office and speak to them behind closed doors. No one would have known if the girls didn’t tell everyone.

      It’s funny that you say that, about being the father of boys. While I have two girls, I know what you mean. My son’s the oldest, in middle school. It’s never once crossed my mind with him. But my daughter, who’s 11? It’s a constant topic with her. And this is a girl who dresses like a tomboy. But she was called out for showing her shoulders when she was in second grade. She was mortified. I found out last night that the reason she refuses to wear white shirts is because she would need to wear a bra or tank top under it (since white shirts can be see through) and she worries that if the neckline of her shirt shifts that the strap will show and she’ll get in trouble. In.Sane. It makes me want to rip someone’s head off! And at the time, I knew she was upset, but I had no idea how much it bothered her.

      1. If they are publicly shaming girls for violating dress code that is horrifying. And 2nd graders certainly shouldn’t be reprimanded because her shoulder is showing. That’s ridiculous.

  4. Distraction is distraction, and it isn’t necessarily boys ogling girls. It’s girls comparing themselves to other girls, boys trying to see how low they can get away with their pants before they get in trouble, etc. Some of the same things that make sites like “People of Walmart” popular, for better or worse, happen in this group too.

    I say uniforms are the way to go. It won’t end economic disparity or cliques (because there are always purses, watches, shoes, backpacks,etc.) but it’s a start.

    M had a few dress code issues because of his pants; he is too slender and would get reported for sagging his pants, even when he tried his darndest to NOT do that (we ended up buying a bunch of zip-ties because at his size, even belts didn’t do much).

    When I was in school, we weren’t allowed to wear shorts in high school at all but girls could wear skirts without restrictions year-round. Several guys staged a protest and wore skirts to show the hypocrisy of it all. I believe they all got suspended but the dress code got changed the following year.

    1. You’re right there will be distractions no matter what. (and the whole “People of Walmart thing is disgusting. People are cruel and mean. I don’t get it) I am torn on uniforms. Part of me loves the idea because it takes away some stigma from kids who can’t keep up with buying designer clothes. And as a parent it would make school clothes shopping so much easier. The only issue I really have with uniforms is that not every body can work or feel comfortable in a limited selection. Maybe it’s just me because I wore a back brace for a year and then a body cast, but I would have hated uniforms. I had to wear giant sweaters and shirts to try to disguise the hunchback of notre dame look I had going on. A uniform with a shirt that had to be tucked in would have been devastating.

      Seriously, I have no problem with boys wearing skirts to school. I don’t. If we stopped policing some of this stuff (short of indecent exposure) then maybe the kids wouldn’t think it’s such a big deal. Let kids color their hair, have piercings, wear crazy outfits. Eventually, like after a week, I think they’d all stop noticing and move on. Maybe I’m wrong and that’s just my idealistic view. I think that’s so cool that those boys at your school staged a protest. And I think these girls that are doing these protests and making these signs are bad ass. It gives me hope that these are the kinds of kids that will change the world. But there I go being an idealist again 🙂

      1. I think the wild hair color thing gets more attention when the school freaks out than when the kids actually do it. It was a big court case here in VA, post 9/11, about that and trench coats, etc.

        So, I agree with all of your second paragraph (and would have definitely let M wear a skirt if he requested to) but I think tying into my experience is why I think uniforms are a good option. Though, I am sure, a school that allows uniforms wouldn’t allow green hair. THAT would be a happy medium for me.

      2. The guiding rule, for ALL uniform policies, has to be “be reasonable.” We had a kid with a back brace a couple of years ago. He couldn’t tuck his shirt in. He got an exception to that rule, and got a pass to carry around in case a teacher who he didn’t know got on his case.

  5. hmmm…. very good post.. Here children mostly wear school uniform. But even then it is frounded upon when the uniform dress is too short or whatever…..

    1. Thank you Serins! I’m torn on uniforms. On the one hand, I would have loved them because my family couldn’t afford the “cool” clothes growing up. On the other hand, I worry about kids who’s bodies would be completely unfit for the uniforms. Some people with body image issues should be allowed to wear whatever makes them comfortable to be seen in. And as a parent, I would love it! My daughter stresses so much about getting in trouble over what to wear. Uniforms would solve that. And she dresses super conservative, and still worries!

  6. I wonder if enforcing these dress codes is like telling boys to ignore the elephant in the room. Maybe they wouldn’t even notice bra straps as much if schools weren’t constantly pointing them out? Among other things.

    I agree that some of the rules and particularly the punishments for these girls are shamefully sexist and wrong. At the same time, I can’t help feeling a bit sad when I see a young girl at Starbucks wearing those shorts with her butt cheeks practically hanging out. There are so many clothing industries that do try to sexualize girls at younger ages, but that’s a larger symptom of a culture that is unhealthily obsessed with sex and viewing bodies as meat.

    1. I agree, I don’t like to see girls trying to dress way older than they are. Or trying to meet some standard of “hot” that’s put out there by society. But I don’t look at them in judgement (as some people seem to). Like you, it makes me a little sad for them. They are under so much pressure, much more than I think we were when we were younger. They’re constantly hearing “Be sexy!” “But don’t look like a slut!”

      I think the way that these dress codes are often being enforced is the problem. The way some schools are handling it is also treating girls like they are a piece of meat. I’ve seen it at my kids’ elementary school. My daughter for wearing a sleeveless dress in second grade. Some of her friends. One of her friends who is the tallest girl in her grade, was called out for her shorts being too short. Even though they met the school’s “fingertip test.” Because her legs were longer! My daughter was really affected by it and she was only 7! It is crazy! I’m sure no one was trying to shame my daughter, but telling a 7 year old who is the ultimate rule follower to go to the office and borrow a sweater from the lost and found to wear over her dress? That’s pretty embarrassing. Not to mention it was in May and around 90 degrees outside.

      And dear lord, it is hard to even find clothes for girls that meet the dress code standards! That blogger who wrote the post about Target shorts was on to something. (Obviously since it went crazy viral!)

  7. “They don’t view their bodies as sexual.” – I’m not sure I can *entirely* agree with that as a blanket statement. But I do think uniforms are the way to go. And I DEFINITELY think that the whole dress code thing is doing a vast disservice to younger generations AND to public confidence in the education system in the US.

    Fortunately in the UK, the majority of schools have uniforms. And yes, there’s still a code (which is fine) and I do think that it makes life easier all around.

    1. Yes, you’re not the only one who takes issue with that statement. And I should have probably qualified it. Most of these stories were about middle school girls.

      The WAY they are constructing and carrying out the dress codes is the problem. Not the existence of the codes. It is apparently sending a very clear message to the students that is not nearly the message I want my kids to receive.

      I do think uniforms make life a lot easier in most aspects. As a parent who has to shop for two girls, I would LOVE it. I do have some issues with them, but they are more personal and probably nitpick-y.

      1. I think on the whole, uniforms can make it easier for (in particular) kids from deprived backgrounds, who can’t afford the latest fashion. It’s a great equaliser. Although I do somewhat take issue with school as a whole, but that’s another topic.

        I understand that the stories are mostly about middle school girls, but when you consider (early) teen pregnancies and the offering of contraception to youngsters and (as I understand it) the opportunity in certain places for underage girls to have an abortion without adult consent or awareness, then yes, I would say that there’s a case to be made that even middle school girls can view their bodies as sexual.

        1. That notion makes me so very sad. And I’m sure there’s a case to be made for it. It is heartbreaking to think that girls actually view themselves that way at a young age. I do think the issue of teen pregnancies is indicative of huge issues in society and in the girls’ lives. Less on the girls feeling provocative and sexual. I would wager more on feeling like they need to find value in themselves somehow, any how. But the reality is it’s likely a mixture of all of it. Different reasons and factors. And like you said, the whole thing is doing a disservice to kids.

          1. It’s a hugely, horrendously, multi-layered topic. You did well to tackle it (and to field my comments with such good grace – I know I’m being obstinately difficult about this) and to get your thoughts OUT THERE. Because they’re good – truly. I hope you don’t feel I’m trying to undermine your points or put you down.

            Teen pregnancy is a huge issue to our Western eyes. I know there are cultures where (the top end of the teens, at least) it would be normal. And no issues or hang-ups or pressures or…whatevers…about it! But yes. In our society it’s a different kettle of fish entirely.

            Would be good to affirm youngsters – all of them – and let them know that intimacy and acceptance don’t need to be predicated on sex. Would be good to affirm adults of the same, tbh.

          2. I do not for one minute feel you’re trying to undermine me. I really want people’s thoughts on this. I want devil’s advocate, I think this deserves a healthy debate and my views are certainly worth challenging! And this is certainly not a yes or no or black and white kind of issue. It’s a sticky one, that’s for sure… you, my friend, can challenge me or my points any time 🙂

  8. I live in CA where it is very hot. My seven year old daughter was scared to go to school because there was a rule that children’s straps had to be a certain thickness. I can not imaging what is wrong with a 7 year old in a sundress, no matter how thin the straps. I called the school and spoke to the principal and she could not come up with one good reason why this rule should be enforced (although she tried). She recommended I take it to the school board, which I did. The man I spoke to agreed with me and said that many of these rules are outdated and he would be reviewing them over the summer. This year, we are back in school and, guess what, that rule has been scratched! A small victory!

    1. What is up with the policing of the elementary schools and harassing 7 year olds? I don’t know if you saw that in my comments above, but the exact same thing happened to my daughter! I didn’t realize at the time how much it bothered her. But now she measures her shorts, won’t wear a v neck t shirt. I thought it was just her style, but when I was talking to her about writing this she confided that she still stresses and that’s why she’s uber careful about what she wears to school. And good for you for getting it changed! That is awesome! I would love to hear a valid reason to impose some of these things on the younger kids especially. The shoulders exposed? I would love to hear why that’s a concern at any age!

      1. Couldn’t agree more. My daughter was the same way.These people that enforce the rules can really be bullies about it and harassment is a very accurate term for it. My daughter was very upset about it as well. I just got sick of hearing the principal give lame excuses about why these rules were being enforced. There are no valid reasons for it.

  9. The unfortunate reality I experienced is that no matter what clothes a girl wears, the boys or men will still find ways to objectify and oggle them. Girls are at risk for rape and sexual assault in baggy overhauls and hiking boots as well as in leggings and mini skirts. Men in ties are just as likely to challenge a girls sexuality as a boy with their pants hanging to their knees.
    I wish it were different.

    1. Amen. I wish it were different too. It’s time to dispel with the myth that girls dress in a way that invites sexual assault. It’s just a form of victim shaming.

      And I have to say, half of these things on these lists, I wear. I wear tank tops. Every once in a while cleavage may be exposed. I was raised to not be ashamed of my body. If I feel comfortable, I wear it. I’m trying to teach my girls to dress how they feel comfortable. I will work for them to dress in a way that they think fits them, not what other’s think they should wear.

  10. A school dress code is all about the institution aiming for control and conformity. The girls certainly do get the worst of it and using shame as a weapon is unacceptable — especially for teenagers whose feelings are so acute and magnified. But boys are made to feel uncomfortable, too. Not so much for their clothing choices but for other things that are just as important. In the end, boys are more likely to drop out and less likely to obtain higher education credentials. But back to dress codes. A lot of school districts justify these policies by saying the clothing is distracting. I’d like to offer those schools a list of things that are far more distracting to their students’ achievement: child poverty and the systemic racism, classism & sexism of public schools. If they really want to help kids they could put more energy into making schools more accepting and inclusive.

    1. Debra, You just won my heart. Yes!!! There are so many things much more important to worry about and focus on! And so many things that are legitimately distracting to kids. I want to take your last statement and make it my last line of this post. Brilliantly said. Thank you.

  11. One of my political science professors conducted research on the relationship between student academic achievement and school athletic spending in Texas. His team found that with all other factors being equal — spending per student, textbooks, school size, teacher salaries, etc. — the more money a school spends on athletics, the lower the academic scores become. Previous studies had indicated that athletic participation was good for test scores, and it is, for those students who participate. But spending on athletics sends a very clear message to all the REST of the students that what they’re doing is not as important to the school. Buying a new gym or stadium, for instance, fundamentally changes the culture of the school by indicating the school’s priorities to the students.

    I’m sharing this because I think it illustrates how easy it is for kids to get messages from adults and faculty. The way to make attire nonsexual is to make the dress codes nonsexual. Have a baseline of some kind, state the reasoning is to put all students on an equal footing and minimize distraction, and then enforce it equally for everyone, without using shaming tactics. (This can be done while still allowing expression, like colored hair and nail polish for boys and whatnot). The students get the message that the priority is the actual work they’re there to do, NOT the message that every last person in the school is focused on their hemline, teachers included.

    Public shaming sends the exact opposite message. “LOOK AT HER, SHE’S BEING SEXUAL. LOOK, SEX SEX SEX.” If you’re trying to minimize distraction, and even to minimize interest in sex, that’s entirely the wrong way to go about it. Other commenters have said “But sometimes they are being sexual!” and sure, they are. But these dress codes are actually telling them that they are, whether they intended to be or not.

    1. Hannah, I love that you are part of our Feminist Friday discussions. You always put things in a way that make so much sense and make my point so much more succinctly. First, that study that your professor did is fascinating. Second, I agree. There should be a baseline for dress codes. “No underwear visible.” Basic. Applicable to both sexes. The reality is kids can learn no matter what they’re wearing. I’ve heard the argument that school should be like a job, they should have to dress as they would going to a job. But, these are kids. Why should they have to dress like business people? What’s the point of that?

      The example I like to point out is my son’s swim team. These kids live in their bathing suits. They do dry land work outs in their suits some times. No one makes a big deal about it and the kids are completely unphased. And these kids are crazy focused.

      And “public shaming sends the exact opposite message” Aboslutely.

      1. Thanks! I’m always glad to hear when you’re hosting You can be more passionate than I can and have the real-world examples. 🙂

        The swim team is a great example. If it’s not worked up into a huge anxiety-making thing, and also not worked up into a huge imagination-orgy, then, well… there’s no anxiety and no orgy. Real-world example right there.

        1. Ok, I love that phrase “imagination-orgy!” That’s awesome! I think the example with the swim team demonstrates that if you give kids more credit they’ll often meet your expectations and then some.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that! I was nervous as I felt like this would be treading on a touchy subject. And it is easy to get sidetracked on something like this. So thank you very much.

      1. I think you pretty much nailed it, there is a problem with women being over sexualized and the fact that girls are maturing faster now than in the past. Your argument that dress codes don’t do anything to address the larger problem but rather teach girls they should just cover up was very well constructed.

  12. This is an awesome piece. My schools have always had similar dress codes, but also included some male-driven restrictions (when sagging pants were more in style, it prohibited that, etc), but neither gender’s restrictions were ever particularly enforced. On multiple occasions I had conversations with administrators while wearing tank tops at school or wearing a dress that covered me, but not by much.
    I agree that placing the blame on girls for their so-called distraction is a symptom of patriarchy, and I really like the images that you included in this post–they powerfully illustrate why this issue is problematic.
    The only time I’ve been “talked to” about dressing a certain way was at work, when after 2.5 years of me working there and wearing shorts (again, covering me, but not by much), my boss decided to change the dress code and shorts/short skirts were prohibited. It shouldn’t matter what gender my boss was but she’s a woman–I only point this out to distinguish from a male boss who might make the same “distraction” argument. I suppose I understand a certain level of “professionalism” that’s required in the workplace that is perhaps less important at school, but all of the employees were high school students working part-time with kids at an after-school tutoring program, not surrounded by adults in an office.

    1. Thank you Sabina! I don’t remember dress codes being a big deal when I was in school. We had them but they were only enforced when someone was really challenging them. There was a girl who would regularly wear mid-riff baring shirts in middle school. The code said no shirt showing your navel. So she wore a band aid over her belly button. But that is the only time I ever remember there being any focus on what the kids wore. The sagging pants are still in a lot of the dress codes (I know they’re in the dress codes at our school). I don’t know when this started becoming a way to shame girls and why. I really wondered if it was just because of Social Media that we’re hearing more about it. The thing is, not only is it embarrassing and sending all of the wrong messages, but some of these people seem to take a perverse joy in punishing the girls and shaming them.

  13. Ok wow. Nice thread, but very dense. It’s gonna take me a while to catch up and think of what to say, but I’m doing that as soon as I Tweet this from the browser button, which I’ve held off on doing all day because I wanted it to go while the ol’ Twitter account is red hot 😉

  14. Context: I teach in a middle school, have never worked in one without some sort of uniform, and have made an ass of myself at every single faculty meeting about dress codes that I can remember. I want to make two points, and I hope they’re not seen as derailing, because both do slightly miss the point of the article:
    1) In every school I’ve ever worked at, dress code violations were FAR more common with boys than with girls, and that is specifically because of the “pull up your Goddamn pants” rule. I have been teaching for thirteen years and have never had to say that to a female student. The guys would walk around with their pants around their knees if we let them. Seriously: fifteen, twenty times a day sometimes. I’ve never said a single word to a female student about the length of her skirt, but I won’t pretend I’ve never seen it happen.
    2) I’m aware that this isn’t quite the point of the image, but whoever put that “guys never say” thing together has never met a thirteen-year-old boy. I can specifically remember thinking at least four of those things. I won’t say how recently.

    1. I totally get the sagging pants phenomenon. I mean, I don’t “get it” but I know it’s still an issue. And your second point has me laughing. Because I saw it and thought “Yes! Boys don’t care about bra straps and shoulders!” but I’ve never been a teen age boy. And for the record, I do see a point in having a dress code. I just think some where along the way things have gotten a little twisted. Not in every school, but there are so many more examples. And I would love to have more perspective from a teacher.

    2. Not derailing at all. Valuable perspective, I say.

      I somehow missed that your problem was with that image specifically. And I remember bra straps and bare shoulders being pretty damn enticing when I was 13. Hell’s bells! They still are.

      Seriously, though. The fact that most of the dress code violations are mostly about making boys pull up their pants is something I should have thought about but didn’t, because I’ve never worked in a middle school.

      The shaming and the differential treatment based on gender are the real issues here for me. “Pull up your goddam” pants isn’t shaming. Suppose we do a thought experiment in which we eliminate the “pull up your pants” rule from the equation and consider all the other dress code violations. Where does it land then, genderwise? I’m genuinely curious and have no frame of reference, so no way to draw useful conclusions.

  15. My school wouldn’t allow me to have hair as long as I wanted, and my parents wouldn’t let me shave my head in protest. So I got myself a really short flat top and shaved the sides bare.

    I vote for uniforms. I didn’t always feel this way, but after seeing them used in schools in my area, I think the net effect is positive and they DO help with both the sexualization and the economic status issues, though they don’t eliminate them (I view eliminating them entirely as impossible). Perfect example of a public policy I was against that’s produced enough positive results to change my mind.

    For what it’s worth, I get what you’re saying about girls not viewing their bodies as sexual. Rhetorically speaking, that IS too broad a statement, but it didn’t send up the “overgeneralization” red flag, and my radar for that sort of thing is very keen. If I were going to look at this as a draft and suggest revisions, I’d say communicate what you mean there in a more precise way. But what you mean and why it’s in the post is clear to me from the context, so I don’t think it is quite as big a problem as all that feedback might suggest.

    Nicely done!

    1. The problem– well, one of them– with the “they don’t sexualize themselves” argument: they don’t, until they do. And sometimes they’re wearing a see-through skirt because they get a charge out of it and sometimes they don’t REALIZE they’re wearing a see-through skirt, and you need to deal with both situations differently.

      Goddammit, I’m gonna write a post about this, aren’t I?

      1. I’m sure you are, and I hope you’ll tweet me the link or something 😉 And I’m sensitive to that side of the equation. I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it was like. But I did get what Gretchen was saying there. Context. That’s the point I was making. (And I admit, I’m a little biased here).

      2. Luther, that’s I think the part that some of the dress code enforcers don’t seem to be taking into consideration. Some girls may be trying to be provocative. Others are innocently clueless. Hell, as an adult I’ve come home and realized that a shirt was more sheer than I realized. The feeling is awful. Mortifying.

        And absolutely, please do write a post about this! I can’t tell if you’re fired up and excited to write about it or if you’re “Damn these people are clueless so I have to address this” going to write about it. Either way, I always enjoy your perspective.

        1. It’s an issue that I have a lot of interest in. In fact, I have probably had too much interest in it for most of my fellow teachers. I wasn’t joking about making an ass of myself at faculty meetings. The problem is that because it’s such a complicated issue, it’s going to be a complicated post to write, and I’m not certain I have the brainpower tonight. I will probably attack it tomorrow. 🙂

        2. And for the record, the only bit that I thought was clueless was the picture that I referred to earlier. Whoever put that together clearly has no idea about the range of things a teenage boy can be turned on by. 🙂

          1. It is a complicated issue. I wrote and re-wrote this a few times. And there are many points I wish I would have included or been more clear on. And for the record, this wouldn’t be the first time I was clueless to the workings of a teenage boy’s brain.

    2. Gene’O, your hair. That’s an example to me of Why The Hell Do Schools Care???? This is schools (or the administrators) trying to impose their ideals of societal norms on kids. And the uniforms I feel exactly the same way. There’s a part of me that’s always been against it on principal, but on many other levels it’s probably a better solution. It’s definitely better than treating these girls the way they’ve been treated. I don’t know how much of the comments you read, but it really affected my daughter. And she was in second grade. She was still humiliated (and no one approached it in a “sexual” context kind of way” but she still felt shamed. One of the problems is these dress codes leave a lot of ambiguity on whether they’re enforced or how they are dealt with.

      1. I read all the comments before I chimed in.

        The ambiguity is a real problem, because it opens the door to all kinds of selective enforcement, which is bad.

        I’m sending you some private a bit.

  16. On the one hand, some of the dress codes out there are more than stupid. On the other hand, I flinch at some of the fashions I see on the playground of the elementary school my kids attend, because some of the girls look like hookers.
    And this is coming from a woman with a collegiate/professional theatre background who had to help a gay man cross dress backstage to look like a hooker for a scene. So it takes a bit to ruffle my feathers.

    1. I have to admit, I flinch at “because some of the girls look like hookers.” I know what you’re getting at and I am not one to be the politically correct police, but in this context that phrasing does make me pause.

      However, I think you’re not alone in cringing at the way some kids dress. It’s partly the clothes that are available (it’s ridiculously hard for me to find shorts for my girls that aren’t super short), partly society’s influence, partly some girls who are enjoying the attention or the way their bodies look. Girls in elementary school I don’t think are capitalizing (or trying to) on their bodies just yet. I happen to think that dress codes that focus on these things tend to perpetuate the problem more than solve it. This issue is one of culture and society that I think a lot of us take issue with. You know, I remember wearing short terry cloth shorts and tank tops when I was young. I don’t think anyone looked at me as provocative. Short shorts and tank tops were around in the 70’s when I was little. But I don’t think anyone other than the sick perverts looked at it as anything more than a little girl wearing what’s comfortable in the southern heat. Somewhere along the line that changed and we all started looking at this differently.

      I certainly don’t want to come off like I’m admonishing you, I do appreciate your comment and you have me thinking and considering another part of the issue that I think should be looked at. And there’s a reason why we (a lot of us) cringe at the outfits we see these girls in. That’s something I think I want to explore some more… Thank you for getting my brain going in another direction!

      1. The outfits I’m referencing aren’t just skirts and shorts, or prom dresses that turn on some Dad who wants to be a prick about it.

        I’m talking about the twelve year old girls with pants so low I can clearly see the neon pink thong they’re wearing with a casual glance. Last Tuesday. On the playground before school.

        You could dress a teenaged girl like a friggin’ nun and I guarantee you her male counterparts will be distracted if they think she’s attractive, regardless of the outfit. People have imaginations, and attraction isn’t all about the show – there isn’t anything that will ever be done to change that. Which is a good thing, because without imagination, we’d be terribly dull as a species.

        For a kid’s clothing, yes, that is the parent’s fault for not saying – “No you’re not going to wear that,” and yes in some ways society is at fault for saying “Dress like this because it’s the fashionable way to be, and we’re not offering any other fashions” but if parents aren’t going to step up and say “stop,” then we’re putting the onus on other people, like the teachers and school administrators who have to deal with these kids and answer dumbass questions from dumbass parents about “why is my child being harassed at school?”

        Could it be that everyone in her class knows she wears thongs and because we all know 12 year olds haven’t developed the social skills to deal with such a display?

        I hate dress codes at school. I always did, but unfortunately some parents aren’t parenting their kids. Which then dovetails into the issue of sticking one’s nose in where it isn’t needed and calling CPS when it isn’t a real issue and a whole other can of worms that irritates the piss out of me, because it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for all sides – fit in or be the nerd. Try to find clothes for your kid that are less adult, and have endless fights at home about it. Let your kid express themselves fashionably, and risk making a huge deal out of it with other parents, schools and the legal system.

        There’s just no way to win.

        1. Now I know I’m all for freedom of expression and I’ll give my kids some room to express themselves, but I will not allow them (my son or my daughters) to leave the house wearing clothes that are too revealing. My kids will not wear clothes with profanity. There are some rules in this house in regards to that. And it’s a shame that not all kids are given limits from their parents because that’s ideally where it should come from. You might be interested in Luther’s post he just wrote about this. He’s a middle school teacher and deals with this stuff daily. (the link’s in the comments above). I think he put it perfectly when he said that the teachers/ administrators need to know the difference between the student that’s trying to be provocative and the student that is a little clueless that you can see through their skirt.

          The main issue I was getting at is that there are more and more cases (it seems) where this is being handled all wrong. No matter what the student motivation, it shouldn’t involve shaming them as punishment. And I completely agree with your whole rant there (I LOVE a good rant!) It seems like these things go from one extreme to another. Where is the common sense middle ground in all of this? Like you said, people calling CPS over non-issues. Some of these dress codes and the way they’re being handled is lacking a lot of logic and common sense. And it’s all worthy of a good rant once in a while! (And please do stop by here and offer a strong opinion or rant if necessary, any time! 🙂 )

    1. Thank you Hanna! It is totally relevant. It, to me, goes back to the idea that everything a woman does goes back to it’s intentions as it relates to sex. A bra strap is scandalous? Hell, I’m a walking scandal every summer because I wear tank tops and *gasp!* sometimes my bra strap is visible! And it’s the same idea behind breasts being primarily sexual organs and people’s aversion to a woman breastfeeding in public. Aaarrrgghh… sometimes it’s exhausting, isn’t it?

  17. In the UK virtually all schools have a uniform. It identifies you as a member of that school community and it levels out discrepancies in social status. It means that children from better off families don’t turn up in designer clothes whilst other children wear ordinary stuff. It also takes away the headache of deciding what to wear each morning – you just put your uniform on and go.

    1. I think the more I think about it and especially after writing this and the responses, uniforms are the easiest, least drama way to go. I do love the idea that it equals out the financial and social strains on kids. I never had designer anything growing up, but fortunately with the schools I went to, I was in the majority so it wasn’t too big of a deal.

  18. At the school I attended there was a dress code – you had to wear the school uniform! Girls had to wear a skirt of an appropriate length – boys had to wear trousers – we all had to have our shirts tucked in and our ties done up properly and we had to wear smart shoes and were couldn’t have outrageous hair styles, just as is expected of adults in an office enviroment, or how appropriate work-wear is expected in a factory or other place of work.

    1. I’m probably becoming a pro-uniform type. I think it makes things much simpler for the teachers, the parents and the students. I will say, I have no problem with crazy hair, crazy nails, funky tights with the skirt. I am a firm believer that adolescence is when kids should find themselves and experiment with self expression. They have the rest of their lives to be grown ups and professional. I had friends growing up who were skateboarders and they dressed crazy, had crazy half-shaved heads, colored hair. We’d get strange looks at the mall from the adults. These kids were smart and all of them went on to college and to get great jobs and be upstanding citizens. I’m not opposed to the kids having to follow rules or anything like that. I just don’t think that hair or nails or anything like that is a big deal.

      1. In American TV, films and music videos, there seems to be a much greater emphasis on ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’ v’s the ‘cool’ or ‘popular’ people at school, and I’m guessing this is because most schools over here are uniform only, and it seems at most schools over there you can wear what you want, so there’s more judging people on what they’re wearing or how ‘cool’ they look, which I think is especially a shame for kids who simply can’t afford nice clothes. But then again, it was incredibly boring having to wear a uniform – mine had cigarette burns and ink stains all over it, so I ended up looking quite the opposite of smart and educated.

  19. This is why I am glad my kids’ school has uniforms 🙂 You make a lot of good points here. But I also think we need to look at the reason for dress codes in the first place…a society and fashion world that tells young girls it is acceptable to wear clothes that sexualize them…yet boys don’t have that expectation or encouragement. Unfortunately, it seems that in an effort to keep kids from wearing stuff that IS inappropriate, things like yoga pants and leggings get thrown out with the bathwater. As someone who used to work in a school, the answers aren’t always clear. We live in a litigious world, one that likes to accuse people of all kinds of things. And it is sad to me that schools, educators, and students feel like this needs to be an issue to devote time and energy to instead of what they are really there to do.

    With that said, that sign about “What Guys Never Say” is awesome.

    1. I agree. Uniforms would take this huge issue and eliminate it for the most part. There’s too much ambiguity in the codes and also in the way they’re enforced. My daughter stresses about what to wear to fifth grade. And she is a modest dresser by nature.

      I think the sexualization of girls in our culture, with clothes and now the halloween costumes, just creates a whole mess of an issue when it comes to dressing for school. Did you see that blogger’s post about Target clothes for girls that went viral and ended up on morning talk shows? It is ridiculously hard to buy shorts for my girls that they can wear to school.

      I thought the sign was awesome too. Until a few male bloggers pointed out that they had thought those things when they were younger. Shows you what I know about boys! 🙂

      1. Ha! Well, I guess that is a good thing to know for when my son gets older 🙂 I did see that post about Target clothes and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so hard. I find it especially hard since I have a daughter whose body doesn’t fit the typical mold of most young girls, and not only are the skimpy styles inappropriate, but they make her feel bad about herself when she can’t fit into them perfectly. It just needs to stop.

  20. This is rather comical. There is a sudden push to show more skin, show off the lovely/still developing femenine features so they can feel pretty and proud to be young women. Sure that seems all well and good but if they dressed whatever they wanted, showed off whatever they wanted at a proffessional job interview then either A. they won’t get hired due to lack of proffessionalism or B. they get hired because their cleavage is over powering her personality (so she is sexualized anyways)

    Now unless this is playboy, there is a lot of hilarity because clothes are merely a tool that enhances your appearance to match whatever you are doing, by that line of logic anyone should be able to dress up as a clown and preside of a murder case because it makes the judge feel more empowered to wear the clown outfit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Articles