“Line up, against your lockers, hands by your side.” I could feel my metal locker pressing against the back of my legs as two teachers walked up and down the corridor checking if our fingertips met the hemline of our shorts, if the neckline of our shirts were more than three inches below our collarbones, and if our straps were the width of at least three fingers. It was early June and the temperature was just reaching the 80s, so of course some of the girls, including me, were breaking one of the rules. I remember being handed a white slip of paper that indicated that I had to go to the nurse’s office for a change of pants. After a quick glance at my white slip, the nurse told me that she “ran out of sweatpants from the lost and found bin and should tell [my] teachers to not send up any more girls.” My 11-year-old self wasn’t surprised by this news, as this situation is a common one for many middle-school girls attending a public school. Conversely, though, I never witnessed a male classmate punished for dress code violations—a discrepancy that raises numerous questions about the fairness of school dress codes. In this essay, I argue that, yes, dress codes are biased against female students and enforce a problematic gender binary that exclude LGBTIQA students.
In recent years, students and critics alike have scrutinized school dress codes and have found a bias against female as well as LGBTIQA students. In Aly Seidel’s article, “The Anatomy Of A Dress Code,” a study of school dress codes from across the country proves that “dress code policies disproportionately govern what female students can — or can’t — wear to school” and, moreover, that administrators justify female dress codes by suggesting that the codes protect male students from distractions (4). Seidel found that the majority of dress codes have three major components: skirt and shorts length; bare shoulders and midriffs; and illegal, profane, or suggestive content. The study found that both the skirt and shorts “must extend beyond the fingertips,” “navel-baring blouses are a no-go,” and “spaghetti-strap tank tops are a common target. So are halter tops.” Two of the three categories are specifically restricting female students from wearing certain types of clothing. Those who believe that females are only targeted because male students have “fewer options … therefore fewer opportunities to wear something inappropriate and/or unacceptable” should ask themselves who deems clothing as “inappropriate.” Seidel refutes beliefs such as these by suggesting that “instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects” (5).
Building on Seidel’s attention to the discrimination females endure, Li Zhou and Natalie Smith reveal that dress codes adversely affect marginal groups—not just females—and also violate basic rights of all American citizens. Li Zhou’s article, “The Sexism Of School Dress Codes,” exposes how the tendency to target female students when restricting clothing options consequently affects transgender or gender fluid students as well. A recent study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) showed that “19 percent of LGBT students were prevented from wearing clothes that were thought to be from another gender” and “for transgender students, nearly 32 percent of whom have been prevented from wearing clothes that differed from those designated for their legal sex” (Zhou 9). Furthermore, Natalie Smith’s “Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity of Respecting Personal Preference” addresses how dress codes not only threaten the development of students’ self-identities, but also violate their constitutional rights. as Smith asserts that “Policies that require students to conform to gender stereotypes and customs, regardless of their personal preference, infringe upon a student’s First Amendment right to free speech and expression, as well as equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment” (252).
I believe that Seidel, Zhou, and Smith rightly identify many problems with school dress codes: that schools primarily target and punish female and LGBT students, regulate dress codes based on traditional gender norms, and violate students’ constitutional rights. In this essay I further support these claims, yet I also stress an aspect of dress codes that these critics understate: how dress codes affect society on a larger scale. I insist that dress codes have major implications both inside and outside schools, and I conclude by suggesting a solution to ameliorate this issue.
Schools that only acknowledge a “male-female” gender binary have dress codes that disproportionately target females. Although there is no direct specification that these policies are directed towards female students, they single out typical female clothing more than male clothing. From my personal experience, there have never been times when male students are told to line up against their lockers to have their clothing choices questioned. These female-targeting policies teach girls that they must cover themselves so that they do not distract and thus harm the education of their male counterparts. But when schools send girls home because they are wearing weather appropriate clothes, aren’t their educations being just as, if not more, jeopardized as the male students? To put this into perspective, schools potentially imply that girls can miss a full day of classes so that boys are not distracted in a 45-minute class. This sheds light on the schools’ biased concern towards the male education, as there is little consideration to how a female student might be distracted from her education in regards to the male dress code.
Yet dress code policies adversely affect a broader scope of students. As Zhou rightly asserts, rigid dress codes have discriminated against students that identify as gender nonconforming, “people who do not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth,” and transgender, “people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth,” along with female students (“Fact” 1). Telling LGBTIQA students that they must dress according to their legal sex is an abuse of power because it implicitly entrusts schools with regulating students’ identities. In other words, schools’ determination overrides how students decide to identify. However, personal identity must remain something that is solely determined by the individual, not external influences such as institutions.
To reform these discriminatory policies, schools need to recognize that they are disproportionately targeting female students and consequently discriminating against LGBTIQA students. Once schools acknowledge that there is a problem in the way that they are viewing and approaching the issue of dress code policies, the next step is to take into account that splitting gender into a two-category classification system can potentially exclude the entire LGBTIQA student population and disproportionately punish female students. Therefore, schools should be sensitive, understanding, and inclusive to all students’ needs and identities by abolishing dress codes altogether or, at the very least, creating dress codes in which all students are taken into account. A possible way to make all-inclusive dress codes is to make sleeve and pant lengths uniform for male and female students.
Although it is possible to think that the controversy over dress codes is not significant to society as a whole, this minor offense perpetuates enduring prejudices towards women and the LGBTIQA community. By succumbing to a traditional gender binary, society implicitly maintains prejudices that many have been trying to transcend. Dismissing minor offenses to a fundamental right is only ignoring a problem. As the Index on Censorship, an international organization that protects the right to freedom of expression, would describe it, “The lack of access to freedom of expression is a problem that particularly affects the already marginalised – that is, minorities facing discrimination both in developed and developing countries, from LGBT people in African countries, to disabled people in Western Europe” (“Why” 1). Therefore, restricting the freedom of these students is not only taking away a basic human right, but it is also contributing to a discrimination on a larger scale; injustice anywhere is still injustice everywhere.
“Fact Sheet: Transgender & Gender Nonconforming Youth In School.” SRLP Sylvia Rivera Law Project. SRLP, 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Seidel, Aly. “The Anatomy Of A Dress Code.” NPR. NPR, 14 June 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Smith, Natalie. “Eliminating Gender Stereotypes In Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity Of Respecting Personal Preference.” Journal Of Law & Education 41.1 (2012): 251-259. Education Research Complete. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
“Why Is Access to Freedom of Expression Important?” Index on Censorship. Index on Censorship, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Zhou, Li. “The Sexism of School Dress Codes.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.