Criticize strict dress codes’ effects on young women
"I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized," Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti said when addressing a group of law school students on personal safety, according to a May 8, 2011 BBC article. Aside from the fact that this is an example of classic victim blaming, it also perpetuates the culture of shaming women for their bodies and the clothes they choose to wear.
This starts with young girls. This September, my younger sister began her first year of middle school, and over the summer, she received a surprisingly strict dress code. Having worn a uniform to school from grades 1 to 8, I am no stranger to dress codes or some of the restrictions that schools have on clothing, but even I was surprised. According to the letter sent home, girls are prohibited from wearing any kind of shorts, “short” skirts and leggings, among other articles of clothing. The problem here is not that the school is trying to restrict some of what students wear or even create a sense of uniformity; it is the fact that girls as young as 11 are already being taught that their bodies are something that need to be covered in order to avoid distracting others.
In my experience with dress codes, they have usually resulted in being pulled from class or being given an alternate choice of clothing, but some schools have decided to take extreme action. According a May 29, 2015 Washington Times article, last May, 17-year-old Cameron Boland was stripped of her National Honor Society position because of the spaghetti-strap dress she wore during her acceptance speech. The dress code for Lee County does ban spaghetti straps, but it also states that a warning is the appropriate action for a first offense — not losing an earned title. According to an interview published on March 28, Boland told the local Fox 4 News station that she apologized for her mistake and even offered to put on a jacket but was denied the chance to do so. It is ridiculous to think that a young woman who has worked for her position in the National Honor Society easily lost the position for a minor dress code violation. According to the website for Lee County High Schools, “LCHS’s dress code is designed to reduce the likelihood of distraction and to maintain an academic focus in the classroom and on campus.” It is clear that administrators were not worried about Boland remaining focused during her speech, so clearly, the concern was for the focus of audience members, likely young men. Rather than punishing Boland so severely for her dress, the school officials should have allowed her to make her speech and accept her position, possibly inspiring other young women to do so. Instead, her accomplishment was diminished to a matter of what she was wearing.
Another young woman named Miranda Larkin was given what is practically a shame suit for wearing a skirt exactly an inch too short. Larkin had recently moved to Clay County, Florida and was unaware of the rules about skirts in the dress code, so on her third day of school, she was reprimanded for her outfit. According to a Sept. 5, 2014 Washington Post article, Larkin was in the hallway of her school when a teacher saw her from across the hall and told her that her skirt was too short. It was then that she was taken to the nurse and required to wear a bright yellow shirt with “Dress code violation” on the front and red sweatpants with the same printed on the leg. The school claims that students also have the options of in-school suspension or even arranging to have a “more appropriate” outfit dropped off, but if administrators really cared about the students, their comfortability or their education, a simple verbal warning is an appropriate punishment for the first offense. Shaming a student by forcing them to wear embarrassing clothes is a problem. The dress code for Clay County has several banned items that seem to be addressed toward female students; yoga pants, spaghetti straps, tube tops and cheer shorts were among the various articles prohibited, and coincidentally, nothing seemed to be directed toward male students directly. Instead of the teacher just explaining to Larkin that her skirt was in violation of the district’s policy, she had to disrupt her class schedule and put on an outfit meant to embarrass her in front of her peers.
In Kentucky this year, 17-year-old Amanda Durbin of Edmonson County High School was told to kneel before the principal and raise her arms so he could measure the length of her dress and see if it was too short for the dress policy, according to a Jan. 21 New York Daily News article. The principal stated that “If the gap between the floor and the garment is more than 6 inches, it’s out of dress code.” Edmonson County High School even prohibits both male and female students from wearing ripped jeans. After this incident, Durbin was forced to wait another 2 hours for her parents to come to the school and further discuss the matter. During this time, Durbin missed valuable class time and learning opportunities for something as arbitrary as the length of her dress.
Also in Kentucky, a student was sent to the office for a shirt that exposed her collarbone, even though she was also wearing a cardigan. According to an Aug. 17, 2015 Today article, the dress code for Woodford County High School has been in place for the past 10 years and students are expected to wear crew-neck shirts that do not dip below the collarbone. Everything needs to be amended with time, and what students wore 10 years ago is not what they are wearing today, so something like an exposed collarbone might have been scandalous at one point, but now it should not even be an issue. Even when the student’s mother came to the school to bring her daughter a scarf that could cover her exposed skin, the student was told that it was still inappropriate, and she was ultimately sent home and deprived of an entire day of her education. The superintendent of Woodford County said, “There’s nothing magical about the collarbone itself other than that’s just a point of reference, kind of like your knee would be for the length of shorts, or the length of a skirt.” Exactly that: There is nothing magical or provocative about a collarbone, so why pull a student from class for it?
There are several other examples of school dress codes that can be found online, from those that prohibit young women from wearing leggings with a tunic or even shirts that cannot “dip below a line formed between the right and left armpit” according to one school’s website. Young women should not be shamed for how a young man, or anyone for that matter, might react to their choice of dress. Some schools seem to cater toward the young men by creating such rigid standards for young women. Everyone should be able to dress in a way that makes them comfortable and allows for self expression without putting others at risk.
According to a May 22, 2015 Time magazine article, the Everyday Sexism Project is an outlet for women and girls to share their experiences with inequality. One individual stated, “I got dress coded at my school for wearing shorts. After I left the principal’s office with a detention I walked past another student wearing a shirt depicting two stick figures: the male holding down the female’s head in his crotch and saying ‘good girls swallow’. Teachers walked right past him and didn’t say a thing.” A skirt or an exposed collarbone is neither a distraction nor a harm to anyone if shirts with such images can be worn to school. This being said, there are some high schools with dress codes meant to allow expression, one example being Staples High School. The dress code for this school bans shirts that promote drug abuse, gang violence, gender objectification or anything else that may infringe upon another’s personal safety. More schools should take a lesson from this one and grant students more freedom.
Even if the dress codes are kept intact due to the beliefs of school officials, more leniency should be granted instead of outright shaming young women for what they wear. If administrators are so worried about distracting the male students, then they should take more action to ensure that young men are actively paying attention to class and not to the young women around them.