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Do Student Dress Codes Unfairly Target Girls?

Glamour logo Glamour 6/4/2015 Leah Melby

Alexi Halket © Getty Images Alexi Halket

Fueled by social media, teenagers these days have become pros at protesting high school dress codes. No one can argue that some guidelines are necessary—if only to forbid specific items that common sense says are better left at home. But take a look at student guidelines from around North America and it becomes apparent that many school rules are aimed at restricting women's bodies—all on account of how others may react.

A petition started by student Ashlyn Nicolle explains how she views the issue.

We as female students must cover up to ensure the male students are not distracted. These type of conditions in regards to female sexuality are sexist and outdated. This standard presumes that female students are considered a distraction and therefore it's a female's actions that must be policed. The sexualization of a teenage girl's body is not her problem, it is the problem of those who choose to sexualize a 17-year-old's body. You should not be teaching young girls that their bodies are inherently sexual or inappropriate. 

School dress codes often devote a larger section to the clothing choices of female students over male, and what could be a very real double standard has surfaced in other ways (like, ahem, the school that caught flak last May) for photoshopping pictures of girls while displaying an entire spread of guys showing off boxers and tattoos).

The basic legality of dress codes comes down to the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which laid out the fact that while schools can't forbid political messages expressed via clothing, they have the right to issue rules surrounding the "regulation of the length of skirts or the type of clothing."

Some of the most recent dress code moments that caught public attention?

1. Pennsylvania: In advance of graduation, Biglerville High School students were reminded to cover "sausage rolls." Yikes, right? The letter was handed out to seniors prior to the commencement ceremony and was full of cringe-worthy warnings. "Keep 'the girls' covered and supported...we don't want to be looking at your 'sausage rolls.' As you get dressed, remember that you can't put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack," the letter reads. No protests ensued, but the letter was shared and went viral. 

2. Canada: Dress code violations aren't always a problem of clothes being too revealing. Student government member Laura Anderson caused problems when she wore a tank top and loose jeans with holes at the knees to her school. "They just said that what I was wearing was not appropriate for school and that I should not be able to be seen in school until I change," she told CBC News . "I went home and changed into regular jeans and a baggy T-shirt but felt very sad and degraded by the incident." Students banded together and showed dissatisfaction with the decision by wearing a similar outfit to school, speaking out with the hashtag #mybodymybusiness, and launching a petition on (seen excerpted above). 

3. Idaho: Evette Reay wanted to finish out her high school career in a mint green dress that made her feel fantastic, even if it didn't quite jibe with her school's guidelines that all hemlines fall to the top of the knee (see her Insta below). After a conversation with the school principal, Reay was suspended, told to leave school immediately, and returned the following Monday to finish up end-of-year items. "I love the dress, I have no regrets about wearing it, and I would wear it again any day. I feel good in it and I think all women need to realize that they should wear what they feel good in," she told Yahoo! Parenting . No actual protest happened because, you know, everyone was graduated.

[Today was my last day of high school. I was suspended today for the dress I wore. Why? Because I told a teacher no, I would not go home and change my dress because other students didn't have to follow the rules. Needless to say, nothing is inappropriate about my dress anyways. About a month ago, a gun was taken to school and shot in the parking lot. A student could have been killed, but nothing was done about that because the two kids are "good kids" that go to church every Sunday. A students credit card was stolen and two students went to town and bought themselves lunch, went to the vape shop, and filled both of their cars up with gas. Nothing was done about this either.. But the administration is still worried about what I am wearing and how my knees are affecting students educations. It's time someone stands up for what's right and doesn't let people walk all over them. I stood up for myself and got suspended, but in reality, what I'm wearing should be the least of their worries. #iwontbackdown]

4. Canada: A senior declared #CropTopDay after being reprimanded for wearing a shirt that supposedly looked like a sports bra. Etobicoke School of the Arts senior Alexi Halket's run-in with administration over her "inappropriate" shirt resulted in kids from multiple Toronto-area schools showing solidarity by wearing crop tops and splashing messages like "Not Asking for It" across their bodies. "We are just trying to love our bodies and appreciate them for what they are, even with a dress code. Why would you send a female home because guys can't control themselves when they see a girl's outfit?" Halket told the Toronto Star

5. New York: The lack of air-conditioning in a Staten Island school resulted in tank tops and 200 detention writs. A tightened-up dress code policy at Tottenville High specified that shorts had to be finger-tip length and tank tops weren't allowed. It turned out to be a big ask in a school without AC, and 200 detention orders were doled out (90 percent went to females). "Personally, I think it's biased against girls," sophomore Michael Wiggberg Jr., dressed in athletic shorts and a white tank, told Staten Island Live . "I get that they want to teach us to respect ourselves and others, and that they want us to dress for success, but if you're comfortable and relaxed in class, not sweltering or fearful you're going to get pulled aside, you can pay attention better and learn."

6. Utah: Utah students staged a walkout after they were turned away from the homecoming dance. Being required to get formalwear preapproved is a sore subject on its own, but compared with the alternative, it might be preferable. A handful of students at Bingham High near Salt Lake City weren't allowed to enter their homecoming dance this fall due to dresses that exposed too much of the back or chest (the guidelines specified that dresses should cover from the top of the armpit down in back and front and that hemlines shouldn't rise above midthigh when seated). The majority of the girls reprimanded returned to the dance after changing or adding a sweater, but others protested by skipping the function entirely and trying to wear the dresses to school the following day.

7. Illinois: Middle-schoolers in Illinois wore leggings in protest of a ban. A group of Haven Middle School students in Evanston decided it was ridiculous that they couldn't wear leggings for fear they'd distract males in the classroom and protested by wearing favorite pairs and holding (awesome-sounding) signs with messages like "Are my pants lowering your test scores?" The 13-year-old at the center of the buzz, Sophie Hasty, laid out the problem simply. "Not being able to wear leggings because it's 'too distracting for boys' is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do."

8. Florida: A dress code infraction resulted in a "shame suit." Similar stories to Miranda Larkin's have popped up around the Web. After wearing a too-short skirt, she was given an oversize T-shirt and sweatpants to wear (both were printed with the words "Dress Code Violation"). While Larkin's experience didn't result in a student-based protest, her mom looked into filing a complaint with the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to ABC News.


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