School Dress Codes

by Courtney C Horne @FireezDragon

Today I was reading an article on Jezebel about adults policing the way teenage girls dress.  Essentially, adults often police the clothing choices of teenage girls based on the premise that the girls will distract the boys. The premise is that girls are responsible for boys being distracted. That somehow, if girls just dress in modest enough clothing (no strappy tops, no short skirts, no tight pants, etc), boys will not be subject to their massive hormonal urges and will pay rapt attention.

I had two very different experiences with dress codes because I went to two extremely different high schools.

My first high school had a pretty classic approach to dress codes. Which is to say – restrictions on girl’s clothing focused on modesty, restrictions to boys hair and whether they could have earrings in order to reinforce gender normative choices, and restrictions on baggy clothing that may as well have read “dress white.”

The girls clothing restrictions that stick our in my mind were two fold. One – shorts had to be long enough to go past one’s finger tips with one’s arms at one’s sides. Obviously this rule applies pretty unevenly based on height, arm length, torso length etc. Rule two was that if one raised one’s arms both straight up above one’s head, one’s stomach couldn’t show. (Because evidently we were all on roller coasters and would all have a reason to adopt a position that could bear our stomachs- instead of raising one hand to head height like a normal classroom hand raise.) The rules themselves are troubling in their focus on policing girls in order to somehow protect boys. Far, far more troubling though was the enforcement strategy. Inspections of short length occurred publicly. One teacher would single out girls she suspected to be in violation of the shirt rule to stand in front of the class and stretch their arms up to be inspected. I was extremely paranoid about my clothing choices on days I had her class. I did not want to wear anything she even thought may fail inspection- even if I knew it wouldn’t- because I did not want to be publicly shamed and scrutinized. Looking back, I am horrified that she thought that it was appropriate to inspect young women’s bodies in front of a class full of their peers.

The year after I left that high school they got uniforms. (I told the vice principal that was why I was leaving for boarding school, not because it was the real reason but because I really oppose school uniforms.) Uniforms don’t solve these problems though. Khaki shorts can still be “too short” and cause public inspection.

The real solution? My second high school’s approach. There was a dress code- it was in the handbook- but I have absolutely no clue what was in the actual dress code. In practicality, the dress code was wear clothes, don’t look obscene, and don’t run around the classroom building barefoot. The barefoot thing was a battle at times, but in general people wore what they wanted and the world did not end. There were short skirts and low cut tops and none of the boys stopped listening in class to spontaneously hump anything. Guys wore their hair long and in pony tails and society didn’t collapse. In the end, they treated us like people capable of making decisions about what to wear. They respected the girls enough not to publicly inspect them and the boys enough not to imply that they would spontaneously start masturbating if they saw an inch of midriff when a girl raised her hand.

My second high school was a gifted talented boarding school staffed by college style professors. But I don’t think the approach wouldn’t work in a normal school. It is about treating students like you believe they can have autonomy. And we want them to have that sense of autonomy as they get older and so a great place to start is to let them make their own choices- especially about something as personal as what they place onto their bodies.

I leave you with a high school picture…


and the promise that that sliver of my stomach wasn’t killing anyone.