Dress code

It’s sad but true: for many women, their earliest memories of feeling sexualised, objectified or embarrassed for how they look date from their school time. Dress codes play a major part in this. Clothing policies turn schools – supposed to be safe environments that allow young people to develop cognitively, socially and personally – into places that fuel self-consciousness, shame and discrimination. Here’s why.

Globally, dress codes in schools are quite common. The Pudding did an incredibly insightful analysis of 481 US high schools and found that 55% set requirements for students’ clothing and general appearance. In the UK, students in 90% of secondary schools wear a uniform. The uniform usually comes with rules about skirt length or hairstyle. In other places, dress codes only apply to specific parts of the student population: in French public schools, for instance, Muslim girls are not allowed to cover their hair (which hinders their ability to finish school).

US dress codes generally hit the usual suspects the hardest: students of colour, girls, femme and nonbinary students – in all groups especially those with bigger sizes. First of all, some schools prohibit types of clothing typically considered to be for either boys or girls, thereby reinforcing the gender binary and leaving nonbinary students unacknowledged. In these schools, girl students are faced with more and stricter rules, since clothes usually marketed to girls – like short dresses and tank tops – are banned by school dress codes much more often than clothes marketed to boys (38% vs. 5%). Girls, generally having longer hair, are also often required to tie up their hair. If clothes marketed to boys are banned, it’s often items like saggy pants or do-rags – items mostly worn by boys of colour. Besides, Black boys in particular are more likely to be corrected for not looking “clean” or “neat” enough. For both Black boys and Black girls, natural hair is the main trigger for school policing.

In US schools where dress codes do not prohibit “gendered” types of clothing, dress codes still harm girls the most because the rules prohibit revealing body parts that girls are most likely to show: midriffs (banned by 71% of all dress codes), cleavage (22%), backs (15%), buttocks (11%) and shoulders (8%). Girls of colour are policed much more often than white girls – even when wearing the same type of clothing. Hypersexualisation of women of colour probably plays into this. The same goes for bigger girls; their dressing is more likely to be deemed inappropriate or too sexy.

A common justification for school dress codes is that revealing clothes or “too much skin” forms a distraction or disruption to the learning environment (the word “distract” or “disrupt” is found in 76% of US school dress codes). The assumption underlying this line of reasoning is that the responsibility to prevent distractions is on girls – an assumption that fuels victim-blaming discourses (“what was she wearing?”) in cases of sexual harassment, as well as the idea that men cannot control themselves when seeing a woman showing skin. Girls shouldn’t be forced to dress so that teachers and their peers don’t judge them or get (sexual) fantasies. Instead, we should increase efforts to prevent judgment and help guys deal with such fantasies in ways that don’t affect a safe educational environment. The normalisation of all bodies in any type of clothing is a great first step to getting there. Luckily, US school girls realised this themselves too and launched the hashtag #IAmNotADistraction to protest discriminatory dress codes.

A second justification for dress codes is that they make sure students dress appropriately and decently (“appropriate” is mentioned in 60% of US dress codes). The message this sends to students is nicely summarised by a high school in Oregon: “Bizarre, immodest or revealing clothing demeans the value of the wearer and disrupts the educational atmosphere…” And if dress codes are supposed to prevent sexual or “inappropriate” appearance, then maybe it’s an idea to prohibit showing genitals (banned in only 1% of US schools) instead of belly buttons (banned in 71%) which have no sexual function at all.

The impact of dress codes is bitter: they severely harm students’ mental health. Saying that body parts form a distraction, and thus matter to others, reinforces the idea that these body parts are (or should be) important to students themselves too. This in turn results in increased self-consciousness – especially amongst girls. This is an issue in and of itself, but studies also show that self-awareness about one’s appearance leads to worse performance on cognitive tasks like math tests, a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder, low self-esteem, and depression.

In sum, dress codes have discriminatory workings, can contribute to mental health issues and, limit self-expression and freedom – especially important to students wanting to express or explore their gender identity. The fear that girls in revealing clothes will cause sexual tension or provoke unwanted attention, tells us that there is still a lot of (hyper)sexualisation, objectification and shaming of women’s bodies to unlearn. This fear is not a reason to police women’s bodies.