Are Dress Codes Sexist?

Trends come and go and fashions change with time, but one thing remains the same—the way we present ourselves to others can have a lasting impression. Appearances matter. Anyone who has been on a job interview can attest that dressing for success is key.

Uniforms have been a way of life for private and parochial school students for generations. Khaki pants, plaid skirts, polo shirts and the like, can be seen at prep schools across the nation. More and more public school districts are following suit and adopting uniform policies. According to the Boston Globe, statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education show that nearly 20 percent of the country's public schools now require students to dress in uniforms each day.

Common School Dress Code Guidelines

Even schools without strict uniform requirements have dress codes in place as a means of controlling what students wear to class or while attending school functions, such as proms and field trips. Administrators claim that dress codes are simply intended to keep students dressed appropriately and safely and do so by enforcing a set of rules and regulations with regard to clothing, accessories, hairstyles, and overall appearance.

The first school dress code law was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 in the case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District. Students wore black armbands to school, planning to protest the Vietnam War. The Court decided that schools can enforce dress codes in an effort to enforce students' safety, while potentially limiting students' self-expression.

Modern dress code policies vary by school and district, but most include basics, such as no clothing with obscene language or logos. Hairstyles are usually expected to be neat and non-distracting; clothing and accessories with a penchant for being dangerous are understandably banned from daily wear. There's no denying that rules like these annoy some students, but they make sense to most. T-shirts decorated with Nazi Swastikas would offend most people, and wallets with chains could potentially be used as weapons.

Sexism at School?

Other dress code policies, however, have been making headlines in recent months—policies that don't seem to make as much sense. The "appropriate" length of skirts and shorts has been argued for decades, but some schools have recently banned female students from wearing tank tops, leggings and yoga pants, regardless of length.

The reason? Females with exposed shoulders and/or skin-tight pants can be "distracting" to male students, affecting their ability to learn or even possibly "giving them the wrong idea"—implying that tween and teenage males are unable to "control themselves" around their female peers.

Other schools have policies stating that visible undergarments—even something as seemingly innocent as a bra strap accidentally peeking out from beneath a female's shirt—are grounds for punishment.

Many female students are rightfully offended by such policies. Rather than simply accepting the rules placed upon them by the powers that be, girls are standing up for what they believe are inherently sexist dress codes.

Middle schoolers from Illinois stood up against their principal for his stringent email notifications to parents that "Dress code continues to be a concern, specifically with our female students." Multiple emails and announcements over the school loudspeaker informed the student body and their families that the dress code was in place to establish a "learning environment."

Female students from another Illinois middle school protested against a yoga pants ban, arguing that their appearances and clothing have nothing to do with male students' learning ability or behavior.

A high school girl from Texas was even sent home from school for wearing a long T-shirt over leggings. Her sister helped fight back by posting a photo of the "inappropriate" outfit on social media, which garnered instant attention and over 80,000 shares. Commenters pointed out that such body-shaming makes young women feel insecure about their own appearance while promoting a rape culture, giving young men the okay to degrade females with their eyes.

Revising Dress Codes

Perhaps it is time for some schools to revisit their dress code policies. Females should not be "punished" for the way their bodies look, particularly during adolescence when insecurities are already high. Males should not be belittled by implying that their learning abilities are affected by the way girls are dressed.

If policies are in place for one sex or gender, they should be in place for the other. Perhaps uniforms are the way to go? Uniform supporters claim they increase school pride, help reduce peer pressure, and keep students focused on learning rather than what everyone is wearing. Uniform critics retort that these "benefits" have never been proven and uniforms infringe on students' rights to self-expression.

One thing is for sure—it's just about impossible to please every student, parent, and faculty member. Shouldn't education be the goal of schools, not how short or tight someone's clothes are?