THE BLOG
09/16/2015 11:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2016

Every Reason Your School's Gendered Dress Code Is Probably a Sexist Mess

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Dress code conflicts announced the beginning of the school year with a bang.  Usually, I'd provide an example, but it makes more sense to talk about the Missouri Legislature, where a few weeks ago, a dress code for interns was proposed, to much dismay and no small amount of ridicule.

"Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters," explained GOP State Rep. Nick King, in an email about this proposal. "We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females."

Some people felt this was an appropriate measure that would address serious ethical and legal workplace issues. In the past year, the state's legislature has been roiled by the resignations of two members related to  "sexually inappropriate conduct." In addition, dozens of "people" working in legislative offices have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Mercifully, the Speaker of the House disagreed.

The last thing dress codes are about is clothes.  This incident is an example of the long tail effect that school dress code policies and enforcement can have on women's educational and work lives. Parents and administrators happy thinking that student protests are overblown, a passing phase of teen rebellion, or "just yoga pants," are missing the point. The more highly gendered a school's dress code, the deeper the problems of inequity in the school's culture. Rigidly gendered dress codes are like canaries in coal mines.

First,the idea thatdress codes affect all students equally is simply false. Despite King's false equivalence, and the explanations of school administrators that it echoes, "the males and the females" are not held to the same standards of dress or behavior. In a recent incident, 200 high school students got detention for violating a strict new policy.  Girls, gender non-conforming students, and boys of color are all targeted, shamed, humiliated and penalized in disproportionate numbers. Ninety percent of them were girls.

The baseline social acceptability of gender-coding children sets the stage for other forms of simultaneous discrimination that regularly reproduce class and race-based inequities, propping up, in schools, white, straight, and male standards as the norm for all students.  Stereotypes about race, hyper sexuality, "body maturity," and size routinely impinge on the educational experiences of young Hispanic and African American girls. LGTBQ kids are similarly subject to increased discipline, often tied to dress codes. In Mississippi, dress code violations have resulted in jail time.

Second, common language and enforcement used to make students tow the line encourage acceptance for stereotypes, contribute to a bullying ethos, and feed into stereotype threat.  A rigidly enforced gender-based code is a highly public symptom of a culture in which gender-based harassment more likely. For example, religious schools often explicitly use dress codes to promote "gender distinctiveness."

Gendered dress codes, like many other differences, such as boy and girl lines, boy and girl book lists, boys in the front of the bus and girls in the back of the bus, have far less to do with learning than they do with enforcing conforming. Codes like these go hand in hand with students at parochial schools experiencing more harassment and bullying than those at non-denominational private or public schools. The bullying, grounded in stereotypes, is almost always gendered. And where there are stereotypes, there is stereotype threat.

In 2011, Sarah Gervais of the University of Nebraska found that a girl's simply being aware of having been being "ogled" (ie. objectified) results in a drop of math scores in the immediate aftermath. As with courts that rule sex-specific appearance has nothing to do with equal employment opportunities, schools, to the detriment of their students, ignore the connections.

Third, gender-specific dress codes, by default, almost always institutionalize benevolent sexism. School assemblies or proms often call for students to adopt "formal" clothes, more often than not a thinly veiled way students are made to perform traditional gender roles, when something is "important."

Rules such as "no pants, only skirts and dresses," or "no makeup and long hair for boys," "no short hair for girls," send the message girls should be as conventionally and stereotypically attractive as possible, while boys should be "professional." Girls clothes are simply not implicitly related to work and "professionalism" the way boys' jackets and ties are.

In addition, practically speaking, traditional clothes restrict girls' freedom of movement, especially when paired with sandals and heels. Girls can and do wear shorts or spandex underneath their skirts, but that's irrelevant in terms of the demands made by institutions. Instead, conceptually, you end up with girls whose bodies are more exposed, more decorative, less functional, more vulnerable -- by requirement. On the other hand boys are less exposed and, in the chivalric model of ladies and gentlemen, "stronger" and more protective. This is the subtle essence of benevolent sexism, conveyed regularly by schools. The fact that girls are asked, frequently, to wear white, is worth its own book.

Fourth, the ideas about work and leadership that saturate many school dress codes have long-term workplace impacts.

 "Modesty," in a professional environment, said King (and too many school administrators), "is always the best policy."  Words like "modest" and "professional," are highly value-laden. A North Dakota high school showed students the movie Pretty Woman, in order to teach students how the life of the main character, a call girl, improved after she dressed in a less slutty fashion.  That may seem extreme, but it's actually unintendedly insightful in terms of clothes and "working girls."

Modesty, when used this way, is rarely ever the best policy for girls and women, particularly when it is linked to notions about work and "professionalism." Modesty is a stereotypically feminine virtue that includes being quiet, humble and self-effacing. Exhortations to girls that they dress modestly spill over into behavioral expectations rarely matched by asking boys to be "neat." The "modesty effect" is in no way gender symmetrical.  Words like "professional" and "modest" heighten what researchers cite as the incongruity between "the female gender role and leadership roles." For example, female modesty is implicated in women's struggle to negotiate for money on their own behalves. Socializing girls to be modest in unequal measure undermines their ability both to think of themselves, and be thought of by others, as competent leaders. Studies show how early both boys and girls learn to doubt girls' authority. Dress codes are not, obviously, the cause, but they are a correlation.

The word, "professional" is also fraught, still strongly coded as male, straight and mainly white. Clothes, explained Carmen Rios earlier this year, help ensure that that remains true. On top of this, given the crushing societal pressure to be pretty, girls and women face what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls the "Goldilocks dilemma." You can't be too cold...but you can't be too hot, either."  Studies show that just talking about dress codes almost certainly affectsthe way kids think about boys/men and girls/women.

Fifth, the enforcement of dress codes often does exactly what dress codes are purportedly meant to offset: sexualizes girls and shames them for having female body parts and feminine shapes. Girls as young as those in kindergarten are being singled out for wearing spaghetti straps and skirts deemed "distractions to other students." Girls being sent home for having exposed clavicles, taught that "modest is the hottest," or hectored as five-year olds by modesty police are being sexualized by paternalistic adults for whom female agency is an oxymoron.  From the moment they are born, our children are basted in images of female sexual objectification, but the solution isn't more sexualization, it's to train educators in implicit bias and children in media literacy.

Sixth, unexamined legacy dress codes almost always, by default, encourage heterosexual male sexual entitlement and prioritize men's educational and professional needs.Every day boys and girls are hearing that girls are "distracting," which makes it clear that administrators have not made a shift to thinking about the experiences, bodies, sexual, and social needs of diverse student bodies, otherwise there would be a more balanced assessment of what exactly was distracting which students.  In addition, while many boys support their classmates, many more are able to sit on the sidelines, thinking that this problem has nothing to do with them.  These messages in childhood education make it much harder for women to work and pursue sexual harassment claims when they do.  In Iowa, a court found that it is legal to fire "irresistible" employees.  Debrahlee Lorenzana had to sue Citibank after she was fired for being "too hot"and, while interns in Missouri were spared, women working in the Montana legislature were not so lucky.

Seventh, dress codes based on "boys will be boys" beliefs feed into dangerous myths about masculinity and rape and endangers boys.  American culture remains stubbornly resistant to understanding boys and men are equally capable of self-regulation and to thinking about the sexual assault of boys.   Dress codes often combine a belief in male lack of control with shame and fear of female bodies, keeping victim-blaming of girls and women alive and well.  At the same time, this double-edged focus on the dangers of and to girls' bodies leaves boys more vulnerability to abuse.  Despite regular instances of boys being sexually assaulted, I couldn't find one news article in which boys were protesting being told they had to dress "modestly" or were "distracting."

Eighth, rigorous dress code policing makes the public review, and shaming, of girls and women's appearances bodies acceptable.  A big chunk of girls' attention and time goes into thinking about getting caught violating code.  They have to think harder about what they wear, they avoid certain teachers, they dread certain spaces, they absorb the up and down reviews, trade stories of public shaming and are much more likely to be taken out of class or sent home.  One school actually used a"shame suit."  As one girl put it to me recently, "boys learn to do the same thing from teachers and the principal."  Then they grow up to be legislators.

"It just creates this ability to scrutinize women," said Jenny Eck, a Democratic House member in Montana, after the legislature's dress code was proposed. "It makes it acceptable for someone who's supposed to be my peer and my equal to look me up and down and comment on what I'm wearing. That doesn't feel right."

Lastly, there are laws about discriminating on the basis of identity and about freedom of expression. Citing safety and security concerns, or "dress for success," needs, schools easily ignore students' First Amendment rights, which, while they have to be balanced against the need to provide an educational environment that meets the needs of students equitably, are legitimate. The ACLU has a good overview of this issue for students and administrators. However, maybe more pressing, and less explored, is how gendered dress code policies and enforcement may violate Title IX.

Clearly, policies don't have to be designed in explicitly discriminatory ways to have discriminatory effects.  Dress codes are not inherently bad, indeed, they can do a lot of good when thoughtfully designed and administered. School administrators have a very difficult job to do and are, often, in a no win situation. But, clothes and social relationships mutually construct one another in schools, as they do anywhere else and managing that fact is part of the job of building respectful communities and robust learning spaces.  Right now, what so much of this amounts to isn't a discomfort with clothes, but with the bodies in them and what people implicitly think their place in the world should be.

There are four steps schools can take:

  1. Make the code gender neutral and, when doing so is disturbing to parents or administrators, ask why and set up a process for having the necessary deeper conversations.
  2. Review not just policies, but the language and enforcement around them.
  3. Train educators in implicit bias.
  4. Most importantly, make students central to the redesign of dress codes. They should be part of a process that they are almost always excluded from: feeling ownership for designing communities that meet the needs of a diverse and pluralistic society.