Stop Defending School Dress Codes.



Recently, a Kentucky teen was sent home for school for a dress code violation. The offense? Her collarbone was showing. Just yesterday, I came across another article about a principal in England sending girls home for wearing pants that were too tight. You know, because it’s distracting to male teachers.

There is a distinct difference between what girls are allowed to wear, and what boys are allowed to wear in schools. Boys will most often violate the school dress code for blatant violations, like wearing drug paraphernalia, while girls will violate it because someone finds them “too sexual.” To get an idea of what this looks like in practice, I’ve captured screen shots of a couple different local high school dress codes.


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Do the dress codes seem reasonable? It depends. Some people think school dress codes help promote safety and maintain the integrity of the learning environment.

But did you count how many ways girls can violate a dress code vs. how many ways boys can?

And, really… if a girl’s bare midriff is forbidden from showing, whose safety is being preserved? 

There are a couple things about these policies that are inherently unfair and symbolic of the way girls continue to be oppressed in today’s society. It’s plain to see that dress codes often place an unfair burden on girls, and provide an avenue for them to be excluded from the same education as boys. Additionally, we have to question whose values do these policies espouse? To compare, here is the dress code at a Conservative Christian college.
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While I have no problem with the dress code of private schools, nor with the values of conservative Christianity, or Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, etc. I do have a problem with these values being imposed on my daughters in an American public school.

Not only do these rules place an unfair burden on girls, they also send awful messages about the importance of their appearance. To name a few:

  1. You can be sexy… in fact, you should be. Just look at all the sex symbols our society idolizes. But, not too sexy. Only in front of the right people, only for the benefit of others, and if your sexiness in any way bothers someone else or becomes too distracting for a male who just can’t be blamed for what he does because of what you look like, then it’s entirely your fault and you should have just worn some trashy, baggy clothes instead. Except not really, because you’d also be judged for that.
  2. This will follow you into adulthood. And when you do something someone else doesn’t like, you better expect that the way you look will come up in conversation. Even (and sometimes especially) with other females, regardless of the fact that what you look like and what you wear has nothing to do with your performance, your brain, or your capability. Basically, don’t be too pretty, or sexy, or attractive, because it will make others jealous, and their jealousy will make them mean and stupid. And, again, others’ stupidity is your fault because you made them be that way by not wearing the right thing in the first place.
  3. Actually, this will follow you for your whole life. Later, people will telling you what you should and should not wear after 30. You know, despite where you are, what you do, and what you’ve learned in your thirty well-earned years of life on this planet.

We are a huge voice, Moms–in our children’s lives and in society. And we can do better. WE HAVE TO DO BETTER. We need to teach our sons how to respect women, and allow our daughters to respect themselves instead of allowing them to be sexualized and shamed for what they decide to put on their bodies. We need to do a better job of standing up for them by checking our own biases, and really question whether we actually value “modesty” and why. Who does it really benefit when the rest of the world gets to tell our daughters what to wear? I can think of a few people. But our girls are not one of them.


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Nickie is currently an Urban Education Studies PhD student at IUPUI. As co-owner of Indianapolis Moms Blog, she is interested in not only supporting and encouraging fellow mothers, but supporting the small businesses of Indianapolis. She also works for a Civil Rights organization, working specifically with Civil Rights in public schools. She is Mom to Charlie (3), Ivy (2), and Emery (1), and married to her baby-raising partner, Clay. She loves to travel with her littles and husband, walk the Monon, City Market, hikes, dogs, and barbecues. You'll find her with coffee in hand, likely talking to anyone who will listen.