School Dress Codes Punish Girls for Having Bodies

When school dress codes are written, they're usually touted as ways to make school a more productive environment. But the way they are enforced suggests something different altogether.

The school year is starting, and with it also comes news of dress code shaming, specifically in regards to young girls’ bodies. This is nothing new: every year there is news of girls getting reprimanded because too much of their shoulders are visible. Often, they are taken out of the classroom to make sure that boys can learn without distraction. Rinse, repeat.

Research shows that school dress codes and uniform policies are an unequally enforced rule for students across the country. A report by the National Women’s Law Center showed that dress codes and uneven enforcement of them promote rape culture by blaming girls for distracting boys and punishing them by taking them out of the classroom instead of holding boys accountable for their behavior. The study also alleged that girls are punished more severely than boys who violate dress codes and echoes what many other studies and even teenage girls have continued to allege, vocally, loudly, and angrily, about their school environment: there shouldn’t be a policy around whether or not you can see a teenage girl’s shoulders. That girls shouldn’t be punished for the existence of their bodies.

Another study by the NWLC showed that the punishments surrounding dress code violations are more severe for African American girls than their white peers. Those punishments can have deleterious effects: students who are taken out of the classroom through suspension or demerits are less likely to graduate high school, go to college, or get a good job.

It’s not that hard to see that dress codes are a problem. Just look at the language of them, says Dr. Adrienne Dixson, a school reform expert who studies how race, class, and gender impact quality in urban schooling. While most rules for boys concern the types of shirts and slacks they should wear in the case of uniforms, eg. T-shirts don’t have offensive language on them, girls have many more specific rules: no form-fitting clothing. No spaghetti straps. No skirts above the knee. No belly buttons on sight. It’s as if the body, for young girls, is a liability, and that liability will prevent the boys around them from learning.

Girls regularly fight back. Some have taken to their school board meetings to fight against sexist dress code policy. Others have started petitions. And while research shows that being disciplined and taken out of the classroom, as is what often happens when girls violate the dress code, leads to worse educational outcomes, experts are beginning to wonder who the rules are written for. Fatherly spoke to Dixson about dress codes, how they make school harder to afford for poor parents, and why it’s time to throw them in the trash.

So let’s talk about what works in dress codes. What are the benefits of uniform and dress codes?

While I do think that we should throw out school dress codes, I was a teacher and a parent. I do research in schools. As a parent, it’s a no brainer to buy five pairs of the same color of pants, and five pairs of the same shirt and that’s it for the rest of the week. As teachers, it’s the same thing. If we’re on a school field trip, it’s easier to identify your students.

But I didn’t like enforcing the dress code because I was also a single mom and I know that it’s hard. It’s easier to buy the same things, but if you’re struggling financially, I don’t want my kid punished because of financial considerations that are outside of their control. Unfortunately, I think that’s what happens to a lot of kids. They get caught up in a situation that is not their fault. They’re a kid, right? They’re not responsible for buying uniforms [or not being able to afford to buy them.]

So, I just don’t know that it has the effects that school officials think it does. It doesn’t make things easier [for a lot of parents.] It actually makes things more difficult.

But what’s encouraging to me is that kids are going to be kids. I spent all day today in a school today that has a uniform policy. There were so many variations on the uniform. Why? Because kids want to be individuals! So, yes, they have to wear the top, but they’re going to, when the teacher isn’t looking, tie a knot on the side and wait until the teacher tells them to fix it. The encouraging thing is that kids find ways to subvert uniform and dress codes.

Today, this kid wore a sweatshirt that was Polo Ralph Lauren. All the school says is that you have to have a blue sweatshirt. So this kid found a way to get in a designer sweatshirt. The purpose of having the dress code is to “equalize things” for kids who couldn’t afford name brand clothes. [That didn’t work here.] In that regard, kids will find a way. They will find a way to be an individual. Why can’t we just let them do that, anyway? Why police this? We have better things to do.

What have you observed about school dress codes and uniform codes in your work.

Dress codes “serve as equalizers.” [The wisdom is that] if every kid is wearing the same thing, then other kids can’t be bullied. Other kids can’t tell if they have name brand clothing on or not. Schools have been very specific about the kinds of clothing they can wear, to the point where they dictate where parents can get their clothes. It varies across the country — rules could just be about colors of clothes. Some schools that we see here in New Orleans are very specific about the brand and type of shoe. Some schools require blazers or a full outfit for boys consisting of slacks, ties, and a button down shirt. For girls it’s a skirt and a matching top and a certain type of shoes.

In some ways, at least in the United States, the rules are a throwback to private and parochial schools, in terms of the style of dress.

Do school uniforms and dress codes actually serve as equalizers?

What we’re finding in New Orleans is that it’s extremely expensive [to dress kids up to code.] Because New Orleans is decentralized, these schools have their own requirements. Within a family, all children may not go to the same school. So the costs vary for each of them.

[There are also gender considerations.] Girls have typically been required to wear skirts. There are really specific requirements around the length of the skirt, that it can’t above the knee. It can’t be form-fitting. This is the old-school Catholic girls school skirt. They have to wear a certain type of top. [With typical dress codes] there are no midriffs, or spaghetti straps. The level or extent to which skin is shown is the issue. No deep v-necks.

So the rules are very specific, and for girls, they tend to be focused around skin coverage?

Yes. Exposure of skin seems to be real concern for school principals and school officials.

Let’s dive into that. Why is skin coverage such an oft talked-about issue in school dress codes?

The concerns are that girls are exposing too much skin and that it’s a distraction for boys. That’s concerning because boys cannot learn then, because “they have no self-control,” right? It means that boys are not responsible for their own learning, [and the rules] reinforce the notion that girls have to be responsible for boys who can’t exercise self-control. That’s why we see girls who can’t wear crop tops. They’re a distraction to the learning environment.

What happens when a girl poses a distraction to the school environment by, say, showing off her shoulders?

It varies by school. Sometimes schools will have shirts or extra sweatshirts, or they might have larger-size uniform shirts, or sweaters. They’ll have something to “cover the girls up.” Sometimes, girls get demerits. It really varies on the time of the year — schools tend to be stricter and send them home in the early half of the year.

You might get a demerit or a warning after so many warnings, then you get a detention and after some detentions you get a suspension.

So seeing a belly button could get a girl suspended.

Yeah. Yes, definitely. Girls are punished. The issue is that they are “creating a distraction” by exposing their midriff. The exposure is the distraction for boys — it’s not about the girls [being able to learn.].

And then young girls get sexualized, right? Yeah.

Why are these rules even created if this is how they operate, in practice?

So, the rules are about attention in the learning environment. The distraction is implicitly about boys. I haven’t found a school district that puts, in writing, explicitly, that girls wearing midriff shirts are a distraction to the boys. But if you were to ask school leaders, or teachers, why they think that girls can’t show their midriff, they will all say: “The boys can’t handle it. It’ll be a distraction to them.” So it’s an implicit reason. They’ll just say, “We want to create an optimal learning environment, and these are the dress code rules [that will make that happen.]”

Honestly, I think that it’s also tradition. I think people see it as “common sense.” That they think that kids at this age are “driven by hormones.” But it’s folklore, and it’s driven by our assumptions about young people. But a lot of our restrictive rules and laws that govern how people interact with each other, always puts the onus on women, right?

And in this case, in schools, the onus is on creating an optimal learning environment. That onus is actually on girls, who have to cover up their bodies. They can’t wear spaghetti straps. There’s a lot of concern about their skin exposure. Do you know how much skin girls expose? The length of their skirts, the types of shirts they have, the cut of the skirt. All of those are things are things that schools are concerned about that show up in the dress code. It’s all about this interaction between boys and girls.

Right. Your point to the way our laws often put the onus of other people’s behavior on women is very astute. I think about that a lot when girls are taken out of class because the sight of a belly button is so distracting.

Yes. Yes. They learn it at a very young age, right? That your clothing and the way you groom yourself can disrupt the learning environment. Those are all negative ways that we send girls messages about their bodies, and what level of control they have over themselves in school.

In your research, have you found that girls of color get policed more about their mode of dress?

I haven’t noticed a different dress code for girls of color, other than [higher rates of discipline] around grooming practices, and in particular, hair. Hair styles tend to get policed. That has been in the news — cornrows or styles that people would describe as “overly ornate.” Hair color has varied in terms of how much it’s enforced. But for girls of color, that’s certainly been around hair styles and grooming practices.

What happens when kids get disciplined for their dress code violations?

We know that kids who spend a lot of time out of school don’t do well. Kids who are failing tend to have been disciplined a lot.