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Dress Codes Are One More Way to Police Students’ Bodies

Particularly students of color and those who identify as LGBTQ, according to experts.

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When a Maryland seventh-grader showed up to school wearing ripped jeans in June, a teacher made her duct tape the skin exposed by the holes. The incident stands out as the latest controversial approach a school has taken to enforce its dress code. In recent years, schools have made headlines for their dress-code policies regarding leggings, shorts, tops, prom outfits, hair styles, and bras. Now, add ripped jeans to the list.

Owing to increasing criticism from students, parents, and experts, some schools have revised their policies or apologized to students singled out because of their clothing. Still, these incidents keep occurring, and many say such dress codes are just one more way to police girls’ bodies — particularly those of girls of color, as well as LGBTQ students.

Nicole Williams, the mother of the Maryland girl, complained to the media about her daughter being duct taped.

“The idea that they came up with … to put duct tape on a child — when they can clearly see bare skin — I believe they should have called me first and gave her a chance to change her clothes,” Williams told Washington, DC, station Fox 5.

In a written statement, Marvin Jones, interim principal of Benjamin Stoddert Middle School, apologized to Williams for not calling her beforehand but made no mention of scrapping the school’s duct tape approach to ripped jeans.

The Williamses are black, and a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center about dress codes found that African-American girls in the DC area are disproportionately cited for violating dress-code policies. A 2017 report from the American Sociological Association also found that black girls are heavily targeted by said policies.

The large number of black girls told they’re dressed inappropriately compared to other students likely stems from interlinked gender- and race-based stereotypes. In addition to having their clothes scrutinized, black girls have received dress-code citations for wearing their hair in natural styles like braids or afros. Native American students with long hair or mohawks have also been penalized by schools for embracing traditional styles. And LGBTQ students are disproportionately cited for dress-code violations for not conforming to gender standards.

Black girls, like sisters Mya and Deanna Cook, are disproportionately cited for dress code violations.
Sisters Mya and Deanna Cook were disciplined by their charter school for wearing their hair in braids.
Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Students of color are often seen as ‘hyper’ sexualized based on racial stereotypes, and LGBT students are often targeted for wearing elements of queer styles that may include piercings, short or dyed hair, and alternative clothing,” said Shauna Pomerantz, an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. She’s also the author of the book Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part.

“The main issue is that there is a certain kind of femininity that is seen as ‘normal’ and ‘correct,’” Pomerantz said. “But if you dig deep you find that this kind of femininity correlates to a white, middle-class, and straight ‘good girl’ look. Schools need to get over the idea that there is a right way to look and act like a girl.”

In addition to girls of color and gender-nonconforming students, children who are taller, heavier, or more developed than their peers tend to be cited for dress-code violations. Last year, the eighth-grade daughter of Catherine Pearlman, a licensed social worker and author of the book Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, was cited by her school for wearing shorts deemed too short.

At 5 feet 7, taller than average for a girl her age, Pearlman’s daughter felt unfairly targeted by the policy since the school determined clothing was too short by seeing if a garment fell past a student’s fingertips.

“She has really long arms and legs, and the school made you put your arms down and measure, but nothing is going to fall below her fingertips,” Pearlman said.

For violating the dress-code policy, her daughter was forced to change into an unsightly pair of boys’ gym shorts.

In response, the girl wrote to the principal about why the school’s dress code, and how she specifically was targeted, made her uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Pearlman published a letter to the school about its dress code that went viral.

“Thank you for sending a note home for the second day in a row to say my daughter was dressed inappropriately for school,” she wrote. “I’d like to offer an additional thank you for forcing her to change into large mesh shorts that have been worn by only god knows who and potentially never washed. To reward you for treating my daughter with such concern, I am cordially inviting you to take my daughter shopping.”

The letter went on to say how difficult it was to find clothing for her daughter, particularly on a budget, given the growing girl’s tastes and body type. It also pointed out how the school gym teacher had once suggested that yoga pants were inappropriate “because the boys aren’t able to control themselves.”

The messages that schools send to boys when applying dress codes are especially harmful, said Riddhi Sandil, co-founder of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project and an assistant professor of practice in the department of counseling and clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“The message sent is that somehow your body and your dress causes an inappropriate reaction in boys,” she said. “You’re a distraction, and it could lead to boys behaving badly. So women are held responsible for the behavior of men.”

“I am not a distraction.”
A student has the hashtag “I am not a distraction” written on her arm to protest her school’s dress code.
Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Pearlman and Pomerantz both expressed similar views about the message conveyed by school dress codes. Pomerantz said these policies not only hold girls responsible for boys’ behavior but also send what she calls arguably the most dangerous message of all: “If you are harassed or assaulted, it’s your fault because you showed your body, so you were asking for it.”

Meanwhile, boys are taught that they can’t be held accountable for their actions because their sexual urges are simply uncontainable.

“These messages are pretty damaging to boys, as many of them are caring of the young women in their schools and don’t want to be seen as sexed up, hormone-driven jerks,” Pomerantz said. “It sends the message to boys that they have no self-control and no respect for young women.”

Sandil said that some schools may have originally implemented dress codes to serve as class equalizers. In other words, schools didn’t want students who couldn’t afford expensive or trendy clothes to feel bad about themselves. Dress codes have also been used to prevent gang beefs from flaring up in schools. But, she said, “What is happening now is that they’re a further way to control girl’s bodies, young adult women’s bodies. They also lead to women feeling like their body is being scrutinized.”

This kind of body shaming can lead to stress and embarrassment, she contends. And since the self-esteem of girls commonly plummets during adolescence, telling female students that their bodies are “agents of arousal” can make them feel even worse about their changing bodies, according to Sandil. A body-proud message makes girls feel better about themselves. Instead, school dress-code policies lead to girls feeling self-conscious about their bodies during this vulnerable stage of development.

“That’s a very problematic message,” she said.

In addition to instilling shame in girls, dress-code violations have led to serious consequences, particularly suspensions. A 2004 report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 700 students were suspended from one Texas school district due to its zero-tolerance dress code policy. Ten years later, a single Texas school, Duncanville High, made headlines for suspending 160 students over dress code violations. In 2017, a Connecticut high school raised concerns after it suspended 150 students because of its dress code.

Research indicates that each time a child is suspended from school, the chances that the student will drop out or enter the criminal justice system rises. Yet schools continue to suspend students for dress-code infringements.

In May, a Canadian high school student was suspended from school for exposing her bra straps, and a Catholic high school in Michigan faced a backlash after threatening to make students dressed inappropriately for prom wear “modesty ponchos.” Last year an honors student was given a 10-day suspension and told she couldn’t participate in her high school graduation because her shirt exposed her shoulders and collarbones.

But students and parents are fighting back, and winning. After Pearlman’s letter to her daughter’s school went viral, the school district changed its dress-code policy.

“The new dress code states that kids must wear a shirt, pant, shorts or a skirt, and shoes,” Pearlman explained on her website, The Family Coach. “No one can wear clothing with profanity, violent images, any illegal item or hate speech. That’s pretty much it.”

What’s more, faculty members are now prohibited from publicly calling out students who violate the policy. They’re also barred from measuring students’ clothes or demanding students to bend or kneel for dress-code checks.

“This is a huge advancement and a win for all the kids in the district,” Pearlman remarked on her site.

In recent years, students at schools in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, California, South Carolina, and elsewhere have all protested dress codes, sometimes emerging triumphant. Last year, for example, the Chicago-area Evanston Township High School modified its dress-code policy to say: “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.”

Pomerantz said that student campaigns like #croptopday and #iamnotadistraction, waged on social media and in real life, have spread awareness about why dress codes can be racist, sexist, and heteronormative. Their activism has helped give students a voice.

“The real trick is to have a grown-up conversation with young people about bodies, sexuality, respect, and care for each other,” Pomerantz said. “Nothing will change if we are always blaming the victim and never asking young men to take responsibility for their actions.”

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