Do School Dress Codes Privilege Boys’ Education?
Spoiler Alert -- Yes!
In April 2018, Lizzy Martinez, a high school junior, was pulled out of class for not wearing a bra to school. Martinez had gotten a sunburn over the weekend, and the placement of the burn made wearing a bra particularly painful and uncomfortable. Because of this, she chose to forgo a bra and to wear a dark, loose fitting shirt. Very shortly after the school day began, two school administrators pulled Martinez out of her class to ask her why she was not wearing a bra. They told her that the male students were looking at her and laughing, though she had seen no signs of this. The administrators made Martinez put on an undershirt, put bandaids over her nipples, and requested that she “move around” for them, presumably to see if their handiwork had succeeded in hiding her breasts from the world. Martinez describes her feelings during this experience as “embarrassed and angry,” and she ended up crying to a friend in the bathroom.
Martinez is not alone. More than half of public schools in the United States have some form of dress code and these rules are a key way in which schools regulate female sexuality in Western culture. Our Western ideals include competing points of view: women should be sexy and appealing to men, but not too sexy, or they will be considered sluts. It has been argued that dress codes have become tools through which institutionalized slut-shaming takes place. Daily girls are pulled out of class, given detention, or otherwise humiliated for showing their bodies. They are also blamed for their male peers’ inappropriate behavior when it could possibly be brought on by their bodies. Schools typically explain the rationale behind harsh dress codes as an effort to circumvent distractions from learning, and school administrations often consider girls’ clothing choices a distraction for male students. By taking this stance, schools thereby insinuate that boys’ education is more important than girls’, and it is more important for a male student to not be distracted than for his female counterpart to miss an entire class or be subjected to humiliation. Though a girl might feel extremely comfortable and do her best learning in a pair of leggings, the possibility that the tight clothing on her body will cause boys’ minds to wander becomes her problem and responsibility.
The consequences of being subjected to harsh, gender-specific dress codes can be profound, and may have a negative impact on learning and participation. In addition to the immediate disturbance resulting from being pulled from class, studies suggest that “ a preoccupation with physical appearance based on sexualized norms disrupts mental capacity and cognitive function ” and such preoccupation may be incited when your physical appearance is called out by an administrator or student in a classroom setting. The disciplinary measures employed by schools impose unequal burdens on female students. Girls are removed from class and miss important learning opportunities; girls are sent home to change, therefore missing school interactions; and girls are forced to wear “shame suits” [i] if they are found to be in violation of their school’s dress code policy. For the student who is reprimanded in front of the class and the student who is sent home, the learning disruption may be similar: Both instances cause an abrupt stop in the full capacity to learn. Previously, scholars have researched the emotional and psychological implications of sexual discrimination. I’d like to go a step further, and examine whether these emotional and psychological effects might be associated with decreased performance in the classroom. The stress caused from an instance of sex discrimination at school might be profound enough to diminish academic success.
Aside from the potential academic challenges they pose for female students, schools are also perpetuating damaging norms of rape culture when they make no attempt to discipline boys’ inappropriate leering and harassment of female students, opting to blame the woman’s attire. This further instills the message that it is the victim’s fault when she is harassed, and it is her responsibility to prevent the harmful behavior of others. Indeed, the defensive arguments being made by educators are not too far off from slut-shaming arguments made by those who blame victims of rape and sexual assault for the crimes committed against them.
In her book Girls and Sex , Peggy Orenstein quotes a school’s dean of attendance, who found a female student’s attire inappropriate. She said to the student: “I totally get that you’re trying to empower yourself, but it’s a bit distracting. You have male teachers, and there are male students.” The student shot back: “Maybe you shouldn’t be hiring male teachers that are focused on staring at my boobs!” When statements like those of the dean of attendance are made, young women receive the message that their education is not as important as that of young men. Again, young women are blamed for distracting male students and teachers; it is their fault for having legs and breasts. Girls do not cause boys to harass them by wearing “sexy” clothes. No matter what girls wear, they have the right to be free of sexual harassment. Boys and men can and should control their behavior.
Instead of teaching boys not to stare and touch, we tell girls to cover themselves or leave. According to founder of the Everyday Sexism Project Laura Bates , dress codes teach children that girls’ bodies are “dangerous, powerful, and sexualized, and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them.” The implications may be especially damaging to adolescent girls in the process of forming their identities. Identity formation is an important part of adolescence in our culture, and clothing has been marketed to girls as a way to express their individuality. Therefore, clothing choice is actually a part of the identity formation process .
Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable period, and girls have shown declines in levels of self-esteem, especially body self-esteem, in this period (McKenney and Bigler, 2016, p. 174). At this pivotal time of change, vulnerability and identity formation coincide with the time period when dress codes are most enforced. Dress codes that address skirt length, bra straps, or leggings target girls and tell them their sexuality is not welcome and is to be hidden. Gender-based dress codes deflect conversations about mutually respectful behavior in schools between male and female students.
Gender-based dress codes absolve male students of any responsibility in how they perceive female bodies , and assume that “boys will be boys.” Girls are encouraged to dress modestly rather than adults taking the time to teach young men to respect and value another person’s physical autonomy. There are ways, however, to include boys in the conversation and urge them to take responsibility for their actions. If boys were taught mutually respectful behavior from youth, perhaps the harmful “boys will be boys” mentality will start to disappear from public discourse, and women will face less discrimination and harassment.
When looking at sexualization of girls in schools, we must also observe the broader ways in which sexualization impacts our culture on a day-to-day basis. The American Psychological Association says sexualization occurs when: 1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; 2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; 3. A person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or 4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Sexualization of girls is omnipresent: in music videos, on television shows, in magazines. Increasingly, the clothing marketed to girls is sexual in nature. Our culture tells girls they should act and dress in a sexualized manner for the purpose of attracting men. At the same time, girls are reprimanded and blamed for accepting the behavior and attire they are constantly told is the norm of womanhood. Girls are not making the choice of what to wear to school in a vacuum, but are influenced by their larger cultural context. As such, they must walk a thin line between conforming to cultural norms and not being perceived as too sexual. 
Girls’ bodies are a location for the contemporary social dilemma regarding the question of morality . Dress codes seem to be less about protecting students and more about preserving patriarchal social norms and hierarchies that objectify women . The sexualization of girls has affected our broader social expectations, i.e., societal norms may automatically incorporate sexualized assumptions about girls’ bodies, which reinforces the concept of female bodies as a distraction that must be covered.
As discussed above, educational settings are not immune to our cultural norm of sexualizing young women’s bodies. In fact, it sometimes affects girls who are too young to understand that their bodies could be sexual at all. A student named Victoria Sanchez recalled that, in the third grade, a teacher informed her the shorts she was wearing were too short. She had not thought of her body as being sexual until that point, until her teacher’s comment made her into a sexual object. Studies have shown that sexualization and sex discrimination can impact cognitive and physical function, mental and physical health, sexuality, and young women’s feelings and attitudes regarding gender and sexual roles. If sex discrimination can negatively impact cognitive function, then it seems probable that it would negatively affect girls’ academic work.
Some girls have brought their schools to court over dress code policies . Under the Equal Protection Act, [ii] courts have found dress codes to be discriminatory when they are clearly sex-based: prohibiting one gender from wearing a certain item of clothing but not the other. And even if a policy is seemingly sex-neutral, students can establish a Title IX [iii] violation if they can prove disparate impact. In order to establish this, the student must show that a neutral dress code policy has a “disproportionate and adverse impact on a protected group,” which in this instance is women and girls.
For example, a dress code that prohibits dress choices more frequently made by female students than male students is not truly gender-neutral. A ban on leggings, an item of clothing typically worn by females, does not impose comparable standards on girls and boys. In order to respond to a disparate impact claim, a school must articulate a “substantial legitimate justification” for the policy, and the policy must be necessary in order to meet a specific and important educational goal that is “ legitimate and integral to the school’s mission .” In other words, there must be an educational necessity for the policy that cannot be achieved by other means. Even if a school can provide actual reasons for dress code policies that do not discriminate based on gender, they still might implement these policies in a manner that is sex-discriminatory.
When coming up with defenses for their gender-imbalanced dress codes, schools typically claim the importance of having a learning environment that is “distraction free .” They offer explanations such as promoting respect for self and authority, student safety and protection, and teaching students about professional dress. These statements assume that we all operate under a general agreement as to what is decent: Decency is assumed to be an unproblematic and agreed upon notion, which is directly in opposition with female sexuality. As a society, we seem to have a great fear that the clothing a girl wears may give off unintended sexual signals. There are concerns as to the age girls first engage in sexual behavior, and concerns that sexual clothing could lead to increased sexual assault on young women. These fears associate nudity with sexuality, though girls themselves might not make this connection and are typically mimicking the outfits they see in the media and on other women rather than making a deliberate choice to be “sexy.”
Though girls are faced with an onslaught of sexualization, there are still rules as to what are “good” and “bad” ways to reveal ones’ body, even within feminism. There is the “good” political way (i.e., empowering oneself, challenging patriarchal rules), and the “bad” consumerist way (i.e., influenced by materialistic consumer culture). However, both of these discourses ignore that sexuality is not an essential feature of bodily display and attire, but is in fact the effect of the reaction of other people. These judgments of sexuality are brought upon by other people observing girls’ bodies and drawing conclusions as to what is “sexy” and therefore inappropriate.
While the school’s safety, protection, and self-respect justifications for dress code policies may seem legitimate, the enforcement of said policies may raise concerns with respect to the school’s motives. According to legal scholar Meredith Harbach , when a school gives the “distraction” excuse, they are suggesting that girls’ bodies are inappropriate and dangerous, and must be covered up. Sex stereotypes have not been found to be a permissible basis for discrimination. Courts have found that “avoiding disruption is not a sufficient justification for gender-based classifications absent evidence supporting the existence or likelihood of actual disruption,” and that a school must provide more than “conclusory allegations to support their justifications. ” One court specifically said that a school will best avoid sexual harassment litigation by “acting to prevent sexual harassment rather than excluding females from participating in activities” (Adams v. Baker, 919 F. Supp. (D. Kan. 1996). In these specific instances, the courts seem to agree with the scholars cited in this paper: Sexual harassment is not the fault of the victim, and schools need to have better reasoning for sex discriminatory dress codes than the potential of girls being a distraction to their male peers.
It seems clear that ultimately it is not the clothing girls wear that is disruptive, but social attitudes about their bodies. Students are especially impressionable during adolescence, so educators must be careful not to perpetuate harmful sex discrimination in the classroom. It has been shown that, at a societal level, sexualization can increase the incidence of sexism and bias; can limit girls’ educational aspirations and performance; and can contribute to the harassment, violence, and exploitation of girls.
Schools need to address the leering and harassment that girls experience at school in order to change and challenge young men’s assumptions regarding acceptable behavior, and make every classroom a safe space for girls to learn. Placing the burden of responsibility for young men’s bad behavior on young women does nothing to challenge boys’ inappropriate and aggressive behavior. In turn, it distracts girls from what they should be focusing on: their educations. Schools have been so concerned about the distractions boys might face, but have in fact been adding additional distractions for girls. Shamefully, the additional burdens and distractions girls face may negatively affect their academic success.
[i] In a Florida school, female students who violated the dress code were made to wear a “shame suit”: an outfit consisting of red sweatpants and a large neon yellow sweatshirt that said “Dress Code Violation” across the front (Harbach, 2016, p. 1040).
[ii] The Equal Protection Act states that women (which includes female students), are entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. When women are denied opportunities or receive differential treatment based upon their gender, the state’s reasoning must serve an “important governmental objective, and the means adopted to pursue that objective must be substantially related to the achievement of that objective” (Harbach, citing United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), 2016, p. 1047). Additionally the state must put forth an “exceedingly persuasive justification and the state alone must satisfy this demanding burden” (Harbach, citing United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), 2016, p. 1047). Importantly, the justification must not be hypothesized, and cannot rely on overbroad generalizations or stereotypes of males and females (Harbach, citing United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), 2016, p. 1047).
[iii] Title IX is a federal statutory law that protects women and girls from discrimination in educational settings. This 1972 statute prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity that is federally funded. Title IX prohibits disparate treatment discrimination and disparate impact discrimination (Harbach, citing U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Title IX Legal Manual (2001), 2016, p. 1047).