It’s time to address the hidden agenda of school dress codes

Girls are often the target of ‘moral’ dress codes, like no tank tops or ‘no bra straps.’ Pan Xiaozhen/Unsplash

It’s time to address the hidden agenda of school dress codes

Dress code policies have always been prevalent in schools. Normally, what children can and cannot wear in schools is explicitly noted in school policies or implicitly implied by broader cultural and societal norms.

The issue of the vast and sometimes exhaustive list of dress code policies of what cannot be worn has not had any resolution across localities and countries.

The problem with trying to develop a set of guidelines for school dress code policies is that the implementation or restriction of dress is just not about the clothes that kids wear. Dress code policies are mired in larger contested debates that have to do with gender identity, race and sexuality, reflective of a broader public discourse .

Dress codes can replicate inequality structures and create highly emotional debates in schools Unsplash

How school educators and policymakers set parameters of dress in schools creates a highly emotional and volatile debate with little consensus or resolution.

Most obviously, the nature of many dress code violations interconnects to issues of gender and sexual identity. The vast majority of cases have targeted girls and LGBTQ youth on the basis that what one might wear reveals too much — that it’s sexually suggestive, distracting for other students or offensive to the local and cultural norms of the community.

Shaming

Those who are not part of the “norm,” particularly those children whose self-identity goes beyond traditional gender types, are more susceptible to stricter dress code infractions than those policies that privilege the status quo. Similarly, girls have taken the brunt of dress codes.

Tank tops, spaghetti straps, bare shoulders, cleavage or no cleavage, shorts that are too short, midriff, shirts/pants regulations are indicative of the multiple infractions that shame girls. The list is exhaustive.

Many dress codes point to the assumption that girls’ bodies should be covered. Shutterstock

The infractions for noncompliance exacerbate the shaming of girls’ self-perception of their worth. And yet it points to the basic assumption that girls’ bodies are shameful — something that is to be covered, evaluated or objectified.

And when their bodies are not covered, it supposedly sends a clear message that girls are at fault should something wrongful be done to them; they somehow deserved such a fate.

This narrative, whether intended or not, plays to the broader social movements beyond simply that of dress codes. Dress code policies mask broader issues such as one’s right to their own bodies.

Dress codes minimize the increasing public outcries over sexual harassment and assault that have been made so public with the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Conversations around issues of systemic racism or discrimination are also further cloaked.

Forms of dress may be curtailed in schools when they challenge dominant religious views. When schools or boards ban particular types of religious dress, a clear and real danger of undermining religious minorities exists. They may feel a broader form of systemic discrimination lurking behind this ban.

Creating inclusive, body-positive dress codes

If schools are going to remove this shackle of the perpetual dress code wars in schools, let educators and policymakers call it for what it is – a diversion behind the more significant public issues that remain intensely contested and vociferous.

If educators and policymakers are genuinely worried about the safety of their students or the decorum of dress codes, schools could simply follow the steps of one school administrator from Evanston Township High School in Illinois. The high school’s fundamental “rule” mandated that certain body parts must be covered for all students at all times. Specifically, students must wear their clothes in a way that fully covers their genitals, buttocks, breasts and nipples with opaque fabric.

Such a simple yet inevitably provocative dress code policy removes the broader contested aspects of gender, sexual identity, faith or systemic discrimination.

If society is concerned about cultivating students’ attentiveness regarding etiquette and decorum in light of our community values, let’s make space in schools to discuss the root of these issues through meaningful political dialogue rather than using dress codes to obscure and cloak the more pressing and substantive issues.

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