Opinion

The ugly sexism of school dress codes

Most everyone agrees that students should be clothed; beyond that, it gets tricky

In a nation locked like longhorns in contentious battles over abortion, immigration, and assault weapons, can anyone really still be bickering over spaghetti straps?

Mais oui, my friends. The struggle is real.

From Guilford, Connecticut, to Lynchburg, Virginia, to Helena, Montana, junior high and high school dress codes are being criticized and even reevaluated as students and parents decry outdated policies as unrealistic, ambiguously enforced, and deeply sexist.

Trying to regulate teen wardrobes is a fool's errand. Most everyone agrees that students should be clothed; beyond that, it gets tricky. Boys' dress codes tend toward "Don't promote drinking, drug use, gangs, violence, or racism" while girls' codes imply "Don't be sexy": no short shorts, low-cut tops, bare midriffs, thin-strapped tanks, or exposed bra straps.

Most disturbing is the reason given for the girls' rules: Their "provocative" clothing is "distracting" to other students in the learning environment.

"At track, on a hot day, if a bunch of guys are running shirtless, it's acceptable," says Emily, 16, a junior in Santa Barbara, California. "But if a girl is wearing a bright-colored sports bra that's showing through her white shirt, she'll be asked to change because it's 'distracting.' Instead of teaching girls to cover up, we should be teaching everyone to stop sexualizing every aspect of a girl's body."

Preach, sister! With college rape culture being the horror it is, are we really still teaching kids that girls and their beguiling, omnipotent tank tops are responsible for the mental state of boys on their campuses? Can this possibly still be a world wherein "her thigh was visible" is a saleable excuse for ANY BEHAVIORAL FAILING AT ALL — academic or otherwise?

If so, it should be against the rules for the captain of the water polo team to wink and flip his sun-streaked hair, or for that Emo hottie to spend chemistry class scrawling Bauhaus on his skinny jeans — because those kinds of distractions can throw a girl off her scholastic game for hours, no joke. (Also, how many "sagger" boys get sent home for making everyone look at their exposed underwear?)

In Montana, a teenager was cited for violating her school's dress code for not wearing a bra under her T-shirt — and told that her appearance had made a male teacher "uncomfortable." Since her own comfort was the reason she'd gone braless, it must be asked: Whose comfort is a priority? Is requiring bras any different than requiring girls to wear slips or girdles or corsets? And would an A-cup student have been given a pass?

Simone, 15, worked with friends to change the dress code at her Seattle-area middle school. "We decided to come up with a code that would apply to everyone," she says. The new code simply required "clothing that would let you participate in every activity asked of you during school, with the exception of clothing that includes offensive words or weapons."

Simone, who's now trying to update the policy at her high school, believes schools should teach students which kinds of clothing are appropriate in which types of settings. "But it's also important for schools to teach us about what objectification is," she says, insisting that humiliating citations aren't the way to go about it. "Schools need to lead more discussions about this and leave it up to our own choices what we want to do with our bodies."

Sure, some students will show off their thighs and cleavage in the hopes of being objectified; these are teens exploring their sexuality, after all. But frankly… so what?

"We have to figure out how to let kids grow up, even if it makes us uncomfortable," says Mandy Jacobson, a parent who's asking her son's Seattle middle school to rewrite their dress code. "What happens when girls wear booty shorts and tight, low tees? Boys lose their minds and turn into sex-crazed savages? No. I don't think so."

In fact, the only teenage boy who would speak to me about this issue says the whole conversation is off base: "Guys in high school are distracted by absolutely anything," he says — and in one sentence, bares more than a skimpy crop top ever could: "Class is boring, so if there's a girl in short shorts, you'll look for a minute …

"Then you'll just go back to staring off into space."

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