When I was a student in junior high school, I wasn’t so much “feminist” as I was “mad at the entire world.” Sometimes, that anger took the form of a recognition of sexism, especially when it came to our dress code. I’m pretty sure our dress code was in line with a lot of dress codes around the country, and wasn’t particularly Puritanical. But like most dress codes across the country, it was aimed (and enforced) primarily for female offenders. Tank top straps had to be at least three fingers wide, so that you wouldn’t show your bra. Cleavage was a no-no. If you were wearing a skirt or shorts, your garments had to reach the ends of your fingers if you had your hands at your sides. You couldn’t “show” anything scandalous if you were raising your hand or touching your toes (because really, what’s more sexy than midsection skin, huh?) There were a couple of rules ostensibly aimed at guys, including rules about not showing underwear and not wearing clothes that advertised drugs or alcohol. If you broke the dress code, you were sent to the office and given a baggy t-shirt in the school colors that proclaimed “We’ve got you covered!” The clear implication of the shirts was that you hadn’t been covered before, so someone else had to step in and teach you How to Clothes.
Now, there were always people walking around that technically broke the dress code and got no punishment for it. Girls would wear tank tops where the straps didn’t fully cover their bras, or dresses where it was clear that picking up a pencil would lead to some sort of revelation. I have seen more boxers than I ever really desired to. One boy in my gym class wore a t-shirt emblazoned with Jose Cuervo every single time we had gym. But I also saw a lot of girls who did end up with the “We’ve got you covered” t-shirts. Some of them even kept the monstrous things, never returning to the office to trade the t-shirt in for their actual clothing. Every year or so there would be some murmur among the girls about how cool it would be if everyone who kept one of the shirts defaced it, cutting it into a crop top or tying it at the waist, and wore it on the same day so that by wearing the Shirt of Shame you were actually breaking the dress code. Note that I say that I saw the girls wearing the shirt, or heard the girls talking about defacing the shirt, because if my memory is accurate, I never saw a boy wearing the shirt. Not even the one who paraded his Jose Cuervo regalia in front of my gym teacher at least five times a day as we walked our laps.
Dress codes are frequently derided (and rightly so) for being sexist. While some of their ostensible purposes—ensuring that students do not wear inflammatory/racist/sexist messages on their clothing, for example—can be seen as laudable, a lot of it comes down to the concept of “distraction.” And that concept is often applied in a sexist manner when it comes to enforcing dress codes. Frequently, girls are told to cover up because their bodies might be a “distraction” to their male classmates, an idea that is insulting to both girls and boys. It implies, first of all, that boys and young men are physically incapable of controlling their own desires. Just one glimpse of a navel (or in some cases, a clavicle) and they will supposedly fall into an inescapable haze of lust. Frankly, that’s not giving boys enough credit for their own self-control, and feeds harmful “boys will be boys” stereotypes that do not hold boys accountable for their own sexual actions. Second, it puts the onus on girls to “protect” boys and their vulnerable sexual feelings from the temptation of sexy, sexy, mid-to-upper-thigh areas. It tells young women that they are supposed to be the gatekeepers of boys’ sexuality, which fits right into a victim blaming mentality when sexual assault and rape come into play. It is a very small skip to go from “well you must want boys to stare at you if your bra strap is showing” to “well getting raped is your fault, look at the way you’re dressed.”
On top of all of the abstract and ideological problems with dress codes are the frequent, frequent problems with the actual implementations of dress codes. Wasatch High School secretly Photoshopped girls’ yearbook pictures to make them more modest, covering female students’ shoulders and chests with digitally-created clothing. Cameron Boland was stripped of her title as National Honors Society historian for her county because she delivered her speech while wearing spaghetti straps. Coeur d’Alene High School “reminded” students two days before homecoming of existing rules that said they could not wear strapless or spaghetti strap dresses to the dance. Miranda Larkin was so upset by being forced to wear a “shame suit” after her knee-length skirt was deemed unsuitable that she broke out in hives. Stephanie Hughes, wearing a cardigan, shirt, and jeans, was sent home for exposing her collarbone. If you cannot handle the exposure of a girl’s collarbone, you should probably not be in school. Or in public. You should probably just be in a room somewhere, alone, and working on needlepoint or something.
The most recent example of really disturbing dress code enforcement (and the reason you’re reading this post today) is the case of Amanda Durbin. Durbin, a seventeen-year-old student, arranged with other students to protest what they saw as an unfair dress code—one that said leggings should not be used as pants and thus, were not acceptable in conjugation with shorter dresses. Since the dress code forbid dresses that ended more than six inches above the knee, Durbin wore a sweater dress that ended five inches above the knee along with black leggings. Her instructor for her third class sent her to the principal’s office, claiming that her dress was too short. The principal, presumably an adult person who supposedly developed a concept of propriety and personal space, told her that she would have to kneel in front of him so that the distance between her dress and the ground could be measured. I don’t know if there’s some kind of list of “things a principal should not do,” and specifically “things a male principal should not do,” but I feel like “ordering a female teenager to kneel in front of you” would be pretty high on either of those lists.
Durbin, being a logical person with a modicum of sense about what is and is not appropriate, felt uncomfortable being asked to kneel in front of her principal, and asked that her parents be present. They were allowed to come to the office, but it took them two hours to do so. So just to recap: Durbin was sent to the office by a teacher, presumably one that was afraid that Durbin was going to distract weak-willed male classmates from their all-important education, and, because she was suspected of being some sort of foul temptress, Durbin was forced to miss two hours of her own education. Unimpeachable logic, right there. And at the end of the day, Durbin was still forced to kneel, not only once but twice. Dissatisfied with the original measurement that showed Durbin’s dress to be within the dress code, Durbin’s principal Tommy Hodges forced her to walk across the room with her hands above her head (you know, the way you do when passing through a school hallway, or when trying to prevent falling debris from crushing you) and then kneel again. This time, her dress had ridden up a few inches (a few inches that were still covered by black leggings) and she was sent home. …Words kind of fail me, at this point. Durbin’s experiences did far more to hurt her own education than any distracting outfit could ever harm the education of her peers.
Whatever administrators claim, dress codes are not gender-neutral. They are the early volleys in a war that women will fight their entire lives—a war that tells them that they must wear skirts and slacks while their male peers can wear jeans, a war that tells them that the clothing they wear is an invitation to sexual violence, a war that tells them that they are not only responsible for their own sexuality but also for the sexuality of the men around them.
Even if the ostensible purpose of a dress code is to allow for a safe and distraction-free learning space, the only thing that girls are really learning is that their outfits, and their bodies, are subject to observation and policing by the world around them.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not explaining how the patriarchy exerts its influence through even mundane things like dress codes, she studies gender in popular culture.