She was just going to school like any other student at Rock Lake Middle School, located in Seminole County, Florida. She likely ate breakfast, packed her backpack, got dressed, and went to school like any other day. But when she arrived at school, it was not just any other day. Instead, she recalled, “my male dean was staring at my chest[. I]t was making me really uncomfortable and he realized I noticed[,] so then he told me I needed to zip up my jacket. I … asked him why some girls (like me) get yelled at for wearing tank tops and some girls don’t … He then proceeded to tell me that girls with smaller chests can get away with wearing low-cut shirts and girls with bigger chests can’t. It made me cry because of how uncomfortable I was; I was literally 11 or 12 at the time.”
Did her dress code create a safer environment? Quite the opposite.
The misconception that school dress codes provide a more appropriate and efficient learning environment remains a dangerous obstacle to improving the lives of students everywhere when they often create just the opposite. One Colorado high schooler surveyed in one of our dress code initiatives believes dress codes teach that it is “more important to cover up than to actually learn.” She isn’t alone in this belief. Whether through sexist policies or through discriminatory enforcement, dress codes create an inequitable learning experience. Not only does the classroom atmosphere become one that prioritizes punishment over learning, but students also face internal struggles in their mental health. Policing students’ bodies is not the answer—letting them learn is.
Whether a student has to endure a lecture from a teacher, find new clothes from the school to wear, go home and change, or even face suspension, the discipline faced for a dress code infraction creates a loss of valuable class time. Beyond this, the subjugation to predatory policies that sexualize the feminine body leads many individuals to feel shame from secondary victimization. By using gendered language such as bans on cleavage, sexist rules set precedents for masculine individuals to have blurred lines of consent and assume their education is compromised by the feminine body. Further, different body types are enforced differently. Whether explicitly or implicitly stated, many are led to believe that there is something wrong with their clothing and their bodies, contributing to insecurities and toxic mindsets.
Although the sexist ramifications of dress codes have become increasingly known, their effects on racial divides in schools have just begun to be discussed. With policies such as restrictions on protective styles and add-in hair, many entire cultures are attacked despite no evidence of these styles having negative effects on education. Bans on doo-rags or “distracting hairstyles” have swept through dress code policies across the United States, institutionalizing racial discrimination. Non-discriminatory dress codes would create a relationship of confidence between students and their school, where they feel accepted, and respected for their minds, rather than for whether their body follows prejudiced rules.
These serious issues that stem from dress code policies have not gone unnoticed. In the last five years, dress code stories have increasingly gained news coverage. What’s more? Students are speaking out. But even as we see more and more students protesting their policies, we also see too many who claim their schools didn’t listen. In some cases, their schools became even more strict with dress-coding procedures.
Dress codes need to be reformed to include non-discriminatory language that recognizes and respects differences in students. If schools don’t listen to students, the system will continue to victimize students who should have the full right to an equitable learning environment. We’ve created a model for dress code reform which has sprouted several successes within just a year and a half of practicing our reform model. When students take intellectual, strategic steps towards reform, schools start listening and equity has the opportunity to take root.