By Adam Shelburn, High School Junior • IDRA Newsletter • September 2022 •
Many school districts have the same or similar rules about dress codes: skirts and shorts must be below fingertip length, no leggings, no tank tops, no midriff can be shown, must have a modest neckline, no facial piercings, no hoodies or jackets, no hats, no colored hair.
When students try to stand up against these sets of rules, we are told they are in place to “promote school safety, promote discipline, and enhance the learning environment for all students and staff.”
In reality, school dress codes are a way for a school administration to legally be racist and sexist to students.
Many schools prevent gender expression among students by adding gendered rules into the policies, like policies that state that girls must wear dresses for formal occasions and boys must wear button-down shirts. This gendering causes mental health issues among transgender and gender non-conforming students (Hartnett, 2022).
Additionally, these policies promote gendered stereotypes and, by association, perpetuate sexist ideologies that sustain rape culture (Serena, 2018). This protects the assaulter by using what a student is wearing as an excuse for someone else’s actions against them. Policies that promote gendered stereotypes and sexist ideologies allow blatant sizeism and body shaming of students.
These policies also target students of color. Bringing gender into how students can wear their hair, for example, affects students by preventing them from taking part in certain cultural and familial traditions (Salam, 2021). Native American students are forced to cut their hair short and go against their cultural and familial values (Indian Traders, 2020). Black students are forced to cut off braids or twists in their hair, cutting these students off from their culture dating back over 5,000 years (Allen, 2022).
School dress codes are a way for a school administration to legally be racist and sexist to students.
I am not saying we should remove dress codes from schools. Dress codes can be in place so that students and faculty feel safe. What we need is for districts to see how problematic the current dress codes are and change them to create a better and safer learning environment.
Evanston Township High school in Illinois has put in place policies that allow students to express themselves and create a safer and more equitable learning environment (Marfice, 2017). These new policies allow students to wear what they want as long as: clothing does not depict drugs, violence and other illegal activities; clothing does not contain any hate speech; and clothing covers buttocks, genitals, breasts and nipples.
These new policies promote support for students’ mental, physical and emotional health. Other school districts should do the same. To start, they should review their policies to remove all gendered regulations and terminology that reinforce stereotypes on students (Leung, 2017). Districts and schools can rewrite consequences for breaking dress codes and have actions in place so that students are not targeted.
The simplest thing that districts and schools can do, though, is just to listen to their students. Most of us will just tell you what we need from them to create a more equitable and safe learning environment for all.
Allen, M. (July 14, 2022). The Fascinating History of Braids You Never Knew About. Byrdie
Hartnett, H. (January 11, 2022). School Dress Codes Perpetuate Sexism, Racism, and Transphobia. Planned Parenthood.
Salam, E. (May 15, 2021). Black U.S. high school student forced to cut hair during softball game. The Guardian.
Indian Traders. (September 15, 2020). Why Do Native Americans Wear Their Hair Long? webpage.
Latham Sikes, C. (February 2020). Racial and Gender Disparities in Dress Code Discipline Point to Need for New Approaches in Schools. IDRA Newsletter.
Serena. (January 24, 2018). How dress codes reinforce systemic violence. Anti-Violence Project.
Marfice, C. (August 25, 2017). All Schools Should Look At This Dress Code That Finally Gets It Right. Scary Mommy.
Leung, C. (April 11, 2017). The dress code is unfair and vague. Here’s how to improve it. The Lowell.
Zhou, L. (October 20, 2015). The Sexism of School Dress Codes. The Atlantic.
A high school junior, Adam Shelburn is a member of IDRA’s 2022 Youth Advisory Board from Mansfield, Texas.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]