“Dress for success,” is a motto I’ve heard before, but has never baffled me so much before today. I stare at a rack of clothes in my closet, eyes brimming with tears of frustration. A million considerations flash through my head as I consider whether or not to wear shorts on an 80 degree August day when I’ll be outside on a field trip. A simple enough question at first glance, until you unravel the problematic web of slut shaming, victim blaming, over-sexualization of girls, fatphobia, racism, transphobia, and sexism that is school dress code policy. While there is significant variation between school districts, it’s almost universal to ban crop tops and shorts and skirts that end above mid thigh, common to ban bra straps, tank tops, and anything that shows cleavage, and not unheard of to ban leggings or ripped jeans. What do these items all share? That’s right -- they’re primarily worn by female students.
When I inquire into the reasoning behind school dress code, I find myself constantly running up against one word: distracting. These restrictions on girls’ clothing are to make us appear less sexual, so as not to distract the boys from their education. Instead, we distract girls from theirs as they are called out in class for showing too much skin. Framing a girl’s decision to wear shorter shorts as a distraction to male students (as well as being sickeningly hetero-normative) robs boys of their autonomy -- expecting that instead of controlling their actions they will respond instinctively and negatively to a girl’s clothing choices. This is the same thought process that leads people to ask the question “What was she wearing?” when a woman is sexually assaulted, blaming women for their clothing choices instead of men for the harm they cause. While it may seem like a big leap from dress code to sexual assault, school is the place where young people first learn societal standards and norms. We should be teaching them that women are deserving of respect no matter what they wear -- and that men are responsible for their actions, despite the clothing of their female peers.
Not only does school dress code target female students, it is often enforced more strictly on queer students, students of color, and girls with more cleavage or heavier body types. Dress code enforcement is often sporadic and selective, leaving a lot of room for teachers personal biases. Some policies are also explicitly discriminatory, banning cleavage or natural hairstyles.
My personal introduction to dress code came on my first day of middle school, when my Principal gave a talk to us at lunch outlining the new rules. I remember going home and telling my mom that I would need to buy all new shorts for the beginning of the year -- even though it’s almost impossible to find girl’s shorts that are both long enough for school dress code, and short enough that they look normal. This may seem like a petty problem, but as a young teenage girl wearing the right clothes can mean the difference between feeling like you belong, and being overwhelmingly self-conscious about your body. As a middle schooler, I remember just being confused. I didn’t understand the reasons behind the dress code, and I can’t imagine sixth grader can or should. I think that this is a good litmus test for all dress codes: can you in good conscience explain it to an eleven year old?
Luckily, sexist dress code policies are beginning to change. Students at Evanston Township High School made national news when they pressured their school district into adopting a new dress code policy, modeled after an example code put out by NOW, the National Organization for Women. The new code allows hats, bra straps, and short shorts. It bans body shaming (including calling students out in class and measuring the length or skirts or straps), and discrimination in enforcement. And Evanston isn’t the only school heading this direction. Student led movements all over the country have been successful in making their dress codes more equitable, including at the San Jose Unified School District and the Alameda Unified School District in California.
Next year I’ll be a senior at Lake Superior High School, in Ashland, Wisconsin. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been in conversation with students, teachers, and administration at my school about the problems in our district’s dress code, and how we can fix them. My next step is to take a presentation to the school board and request a change. I envision a policy that is fair and equitable to all students regardless of gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, body type or size, race, ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic status. A policy where “dress for success” means dressing to be comfortable and express yourself, not to keep others from being “distracted” by your clothing choices. I recognize that this change may be slow, but I also know that the need for it is pressing, and it is up to students to lead the charge.