“Your skirt is too short”: body-shaming through school dress codes

Growing up, dress codes had never been much more than an inconvenience for me, like in sixth grade when the air-conditioning broke in the middle school and we weren’t allowed to wear tank tops or shorts that didn’t go past our fingertips, even though shopping for shorts that long was nearly impossible for teenage girls. The first time that the dress code personally affected me was towards the end of my junior year when I was sent home for wearing a skirt with a pair of tights underneath. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions I went through that day: from the confusion of being called to the office to the humiliation of having the school secretary hold a dollar bill to my knee, from the shame of calling my mother to tell her that I either needed to change or be picked up to the indignity of having the secretary repeatedly tell my mother that, “She looks cute. It’s a cute outfit. It’s just not… appropriate.” 

After my experience with being dress-coded, suddenly I began to see a lot more incidences all over the country. My Facebook page was flooded with posts from outraged parents, siblings, or the students themselves who had been dress-coded, showing a picture of the outfit (which was often perfectly okay and better than my own outfit had been) and a long rant about how the dress code was sexist and harmful to girls’ self-esteem. And they were completely right.

School dress codes are particularly harmful. For one, they start telling girls at a young age to be ashamed of their bodies. They’re told to cover up, to not be “that girl.” They are being sexualized at an age when they are just beginning to understand what sexuality is, and it is unacceptable. Girls are persecuted for their bodies, when all they are doing is wearing clothing that they feel comfortable in, because apparently boys cannot handle it. Dress codes are telling girls that, no matter what, their body is not something to be proud of, and that stays with them.

Dress codes also perpetuate rape culture. By insisting that girls cover up, they are saying that a boy’s actions, caused by a bare shoulder or collarbone, are a girl’s fault. Any type of form-fitting or revealing clothing is banned because it might make boys uncomfortable and prohibit their learning, even though a bare shoulder is hardly considered a turn-on, even though girls deserve a chance to learn just as much as boys do. It is stuff like this that puts men ahead of women, that allows men to get away with whatever they want. Instead of forcing young girls to cover up their bodies, how about we teach young boys to deal with it? Teach boys that they are the only ones responsible for their actions, regardless of whether a girl is wearing “appropriate clothing” or not.

And perhaps the most irritating thing of all is how hard it is to find “appropriate clothing.” When I was younger, my favorite place to shop was Justice (formerly Limited Too), but as the years passed, the shorts they had for sale got shorter and I couldn’t shop there for my school clothes. I couldn’t shop anywhere aside from Goodwill, where people were getting rid of the out-of-fashion, dress-code-approved shorts. Clothing stores made it impossible to abide by dress codes, and it was completely unfair. And when it comes down to it, dress codes are unfair.

Dress codes are allowed in the United States as long as they don’t prohibit freedom of speech, within certain limits, thanks to Tinker vs. Des Moines. But just because dress codes cannot censor student speech, that does not mean that they cannot make their students feel small in other ways. My school’s reasoning for the dress code was for students to “look professional”: no uncovered shoulders, no short skirts, no leggings, no colored hair. Yet for some reason, pajamas were completely fine. A girl carried a blanket with her to all of her classes, but my skirt was “unprofessional.” Dress codes are not put in place to keep kids professional, as much as schools insist they are. Dress codes are put into place to make boys “comfortable,” to make sure that girls aren’t dressing “slutty.”

I believe that clothes are the least important thing about a person, so why is so much emphasis and blame put on them? My wearing a skirt does not give you the right to judge me, to slut-shame me, to rape me. I want a society where frat boys are convicted for gang-raping unconscious girls. I want a society where men like Brock Turner are given more than three months in a prison cell. I want a society where men like Larry Nassar just don’t exist. If we continue to enforce these antiquated rules of dress codes, I don’t think that those types of people will ever be gone. And I don’t know if they will ever truly be gone even if we do re-evaluate dress codes and make them more fair and equal, but I believe that it will be a much needed start.