At the start of each school year, most schools present a code of conduct to students and their parents. Within this rule book is the dress code which is often designed to keep students from offending or distracting others. While some parts of the dress code make sense, others seem to directly target groups based on their sex, ethnicity, and race. When the time comes for schools to revise their dress code, they must question how each rule will affect student morale and the education process. Common Rules
Many rules currently on the books need no revisions. First and foremost, all students must cover their private parts with clothing. This seems like a no-brainer. Everyone can agree that not doing so would be indecent and likely to cause a major disruption. Like this are the rules barring clothing depicting sexual images; offensive language; drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; and violent or racist images. These rules help keep kids on the right path by prohibiting unhealthy messages. While few contest the validity of these rules, many are disgusted with parts of the dress code that seem to go too far.
One aspect of dress codes targets female students directly. It is not unlikely to find a rule stating that students must cover their shoulders, have distinct necklines, and not expose spaghetti straps or bra straps. While boys sometimes break this rule by wearing a tank top, it is the female student body primarily being told how to dress here. When anyone dresses for school, clothes are often chosen for comfort and personal style. What is wrong with a style like that of an off-the-shoulder top? Schools say that exposing skin in this way can be disruptive in the educational environment. The message being sent is that an outfit may distract others, particularly those of the opposite sex. Since the rule focuses on what girls should not wear, it is telling them that they are to blame for others who cannot control themselves.
Victim blaming extends to the amount of skin shown on the legs of female students. Frequently, dress codes include rules about how shorts, skirts, and dresses must have fabric extending no less than three inches above one’s knee. Again, the language is sexist because it nitpicks on how girls should dress, and the reason for it is the same: the school does not want anyone else’s attention drawn away from getting an education because of the extra exposed skin. Girls put on their outfits because they enjoy the styles they choose for themselves and are comfortable in the way that they dress. They have the liberty to wear tops and bottoms which don’t comply with school rules in the public, whether it be at the grocery store or in church, and not cause any problems.
To the female student body, more language within dress codes is offensive and even marked as a form of body shaming. Schools often insert language prohibiting clothing that is too tight. Leggings are one such prohibited article of clothing which is tight on any wearer. The reasoning for this is asinine: it may distract others. Likewise, some styles of pants may be loose on one person but tight on another because of each person’s different body types. Who is to say to a student that she can wear a piece of clothing while another can’t because she is too heavy? Those types of rules are unjust because they can make a child upset about who one is and what cannot be controlled about the body.
Another group often targeted by dress codes is that of African Americans. Here, hair styles come under fire. Some ethnic groups embrace their culture by wearing their hair in a particular way. It is not unusual for African American men to have dreadlocks or hair styled high above the scalp. Some dress codes mandate that students have hairstyles no greater than two inches in height or thickness. Since African American students’ hair naturally differs from that of their Caucasian classmates, they are the ones who are unfairly being singled out. How can hair be disruptive to the educational process? African American girls are humiliated by being told how they should wear their hair too, including certain types of braids and styles. When hair becomes an issue in the school dress code, one must question how much time the school is investing into being a type of fashion police instead of making education the top priority.
Schools need to look closely at the rules they put on the books. Gender neutral language can help, but a striking number of rules can probably be eliminated altogether. Schools should keep those rules prohibiting attire that can cause harm to others and remove those that reflect an opinion of how girls and boys should look when they enter the building. Not only will the students not have to worry about being shamed for the way they look, but they won’t have to miss out on their education when disciplined for violations. Since discipline usually includes making a student change into another outfit or being sent home for the day, the student will be able to be a part of the learning that takes place in the classroom. Each child’s education should be the focus of the school, not each child’s wardrobe or personal style.