For the average high school girl, the homecoming dance is one of the most exciting moments of the school year. There’s so much to organize: tickets, a date, the right hair and makeup. Oh, and don’t forget to submit a photo of yourself in your dress to school staff to have it approved.
Wait, what? For students at one Wisconsin high school, this unorthodox prerequisite is something they’ve had to honor for years. In fact, they can’t even buy a ticket to the homecoming dance without having their dress pre-approved.
School staff evaluates things like strap styles, exposed skin, and skirt length. Similar dress code restrictions have affected high schoolers not just during special events like dances but also in the classroom.
Spaghetti straps, loose-fitting blouses, and even exposed collarbones have all prompted disciplinary action from disapproving teachers, some of whom have sent these students home early. Why? Because their clothing was apparently inappropriate.
These incidents aren’t happening in isolation, either.
With schools standing firm on their policies while outraged reactions intensify, these incidents—which seem to be becoming more and more common—have sparked an important debate on what’s more inappropriate: the length of a teenage girl’s skirt or the way she’s viewed?
Why the censorship?
What exactly is the official reason for these restrictions? According to more than one justification that's been given, it’s to protect other students from being “distracted” by their female classmates’ bodies.
"Distraction" was the reason cited when 18-year-old Macy Edgerly was sent home for wearing leggings and a long shirt. Rose Lynn was also told her outfit—leggings, a cardigan, and a top that entirely covered her midriff and cleavage—"may distract young boys."
Parents are often the reason that these stories get so much attention, when they share the experience publicly on social media.
There’s Deanna Wolf, whose daughter wasn’t allowed in class because she was wearing an oversized sweater over leggings. Or Stacie Dunn, who had to leave work to collect her daughter Stephanie because her outfit exposed her collarbones.
Or Melissa Barber, whose daughter Kelsey was told—by her teacher—that her top was not well suited for the size of her breasts.
For these mothers, their opinions are much the same: It’s not okay to keep a student from learning because of their outfit. And it’s certainly not all right to imply that an underage girl looks too attractive for her male classmates to be able to concentrate on their own work.
It’s not just teenage girls.
To really get to the bottom of this issue, it’s important to look at it in context. Are teenage girls really the only ones being targeted here? What about their male classmates?
Most schools must abide by specific anti-discrimination laws when imposing rules and regulations on any student. This means that students of all genders should abide by dress code regulations. So why aren’t the boys making headlines?
Aside from conservative parents outraged at the idea of a young boy wearing a dress, there’s been little fuss over the length of their shorts or the tightness of their shirts.
High school dress code restrictions may be designed to be non-discriminatory, but it’s disproportionately affecting girls far more than boys. And while that isn’t necessarily illegal, it’s still unfair.
It’s important that schools look at the data and recognize when one group is disproportionally affected by a seemingly neutral policy.
Tricia Berry is an engineer and collaborative lead of the Texas Girls Collective, an organization that works with schools to motivate girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She can see the impact these policies can have on affected students.
“School policies are typically created with a non-discriminatory intention,” she says.
“However there are cases where policies end up having a disparate impact. It’s important that schools look at the data and recognize when one group is disproportionally affected by a seemingly neutral policy. In the case of dress code restrictions, if the policies are penalizing female students or transgender students or any other group at rates higher than others, it should be investigated and the policy creators should be willing to adjust accordingly.”
This is probably the last thing a teenage girl wants to hear, but the clothing censorship doesn’t stop when high school’s over.
Any adult person—regardless of gender—will encounter dress codes at some point in their life. Upscale restaurants, weddings, and luxury trains all require some degree of respectable attire. Even nightclubs often have strict dress requirements.
But what about the simple act of catching a flight?
In the spring of 2017, two teenage girls were told they were not allowed to board their flight because they were wearing leggings. (Despite loads of negative public reaction, United Airlines defended its decision, explaining that it had to do with a specific dress code for people flying on employee passes. Still, the backlash was swift and strong.)
In 2015, a self-described “large-chested” woman was asked to cover up her visible cleavage. Meanwhile, she said that one of her fellow passengers—a man—was wearing a shirt with an actual condom sewn on it, yet nobody batted an eye.
Burlesque dancer Maggie McMuffin was also denied entry to her flight for wearing short shorts. There’s no doubt that if she were to wear those shorts at the beach, no one think anything of it. But inside a flying metal tube? Apparently that’s a different story. Perhaps if her name were actually Lady Gaga there’d be fewer restrictions from the airline.
The most perplexing part of these policies is that the reasoning behind why they exist is often ambiguous and downright illogical. Yet almost every one of these cases shows that there’s something about a visible female body that makes a lot of people feel very uncomfortable—the same view that’s taught to students in classrooms.
What impact do these restrictions have?
There may be a well-meaning intention behind attempting to censor what female students wear. In an effort to stop underage girls from being sexualized, teachers are trying to discourage them from wearing outfits they may deem too revealing for a student.
But herein lies the problem. Rather than point the finger at those who seek to objectify these young girls, those in authority shame and blame the very demographic they’re claiming to protect. Ironically, it places a sexual meaning where it didn’t exist before.
Granted, there’s a time and a place for wearing revealing club wear, and school probably isn’t one of them. Except these girls aren’t wearing anything like that. They’re wearing baggy sweaters over leggings, and long-sleeved tops, and dresses with lengths well within the school’s specifications.
“What’s more disturbing is when the reason for removing students from classrooms or for specific dress code policies is that certain clothing is ‘distracting’ to other students,” says Berry. “When society views someone’s clothing as a distraction or perhaps views having someone of another gender or race or marginalized group as a distraction on a team, we’re limiting opportunities and learning.”
When we remove the ‘distraction’, we are not dealing with the beliefs, behaviors, biases, and exclusionary practices of those being ‘distracted.’
Telling girls (from a young age) that they need to dress modestly to be respected isn’t just offensive. It’s incorrect. Women are still being objectified and disrespected no matter how they’re dressed. And according to Berry, this problematic attitude doesn’t actually fix anything.
“When we remove the ‘distraction’, we are not dealing with the beliefs, behaviors, biases, and exclusionary practices of those being ‘distracted’ and we all suffer from losing a diverse and inclusive environment that welcomes and celebrates all.”
More importantly, punishing young girls for “distracting” their male classmates normalizes that objectification. It also encourages problematic attitudes.
“Having policies that result in disparate impact can lead to environments where stereotypes thrive, biases impact behaviors and outcomes, and learning is impacted,” says Berry.
Shouldn’t schools be teaching all of their students—especially young men—not to base their respect for others on something as superficial as fashion choices?
Policies that have a disparate impact on girls or gender non-conforming students or other groups ... can send the message that those groups of students don’t belong.
Enforcing these restrictions by removing students from classrooms doesn’t just disrupt learning. It leaves a lasting impression on the students affected, and not the good kind. In fact, it might just be even more “distracting” to the student affected than whatever outfit they happen to be wearing.
“Policies that have a disparate impact on girls or gender non-conforming students or other groups, as many dress code policies have been shown to have, can send the message that those groups of students don’t belong,” says Berry.
“It can impact learning as students are more concerned about being called out or publicly shamed for their clothing. Their learning and sense of belonging can be negatively impacted by the biases or stereotypes assigned to them.”
Children and teenagers already struggle enough with issues of inclusion and belonging, especially in school. Feeling accepted and welcomed is an important part of a young person’s social life. So why make it harder than it needs to be?