5 Ways School Dress Codes Negatively Impact Some Students

5 Ways School Dress Codes Negatively Impact Some Students

School dress codes started in 1969 in order to bar students from protesting the Vietnam War and are still being used today. While schools are within their rights to enforce dress codes, they often miss the mark. Rather than providing a guideline for structure and safety in the school environment, they often create stress for individual students or specific groups of students when unfairly written. Here are five common complaints about school dress codes. 

1. School dress codes single out girls, LGBTQ+ students, and students of color.

Remember the student-athlete who was asked to cut his hair for a wrestling match? Dreadlocks and braids are often listed as unacceptable on dress codes, targeting Black students. School dress codes are typically stricter for girls than boys. Dress codes are often unfriendly to students who don’t conform to gender norms. For example, boys wearing skirts or other articles of clothing typically worn by female students are sometimes told they are in violation even when the clothes fit the dress code.

2. Dress codes are sexist.

School dress codes often focus on midriffs, leggings, and spaghetti-strapped tank tops. These are all things typically worn by girls and bare areas of the body that are sexualized in our society. What is benign on a boy- collar bone, stomach, shoulders, legs- is considered sexual on a girl. No one is clutching their pearls when boys play “shirts vs. skins” on the basketball court. No one is worried about how revealing the speedos are on the boys’ swim team. Girls’ bodies are considered weapons of mass distraction. It’s an unfair double standard.

3. Dress codes support the narrative that boys are incapable of controlling themselves.

By asserting that girls’ clothing choices are distracting to boys, dress codes are essentially saying that the young men in our schools are animals that lack basic human decency. The good, kind, conscientious boys in our schools deserve more credit. It isn’t girls’ responsibility to dress a certain way to prevent boys from being distracted. That’s unfair to girls and insulting to boys.

4. Dress codes prioritize male learning over female learning.

When a girl wears something ‘distracting’ to boys, she is asked to change her clothes, taking time away from her learning, and physically removing her from the classroom. It sends the message that boys’ learning is so important that no one should distract them, but publicly shaming girls and asking them to alter their physical appearance is of little consequence. Girls have to dress a certain way to deserve a place in the classroom. Furthermore, the focus on girls’ clothes and boys’ distraction leaves out everyone else on the gender spectrum.

5. Dress codes leave little room for individuality.

Clothing is an expression of self and is especially important during the formative teen years. Who among us doesn’t have a pair of well-worn Doc Martens or some embarrassing pleather pants in a box somewhere? Kids put clothing on like armor to meet their day. Their choices say, “This is how I am comfortable.” “This is who I am.” Criticizing students’ attire because it doesn’t fit into an archaic idea of what society deems acceptable is damaging to students’ self-esteem. 

Oregon Now came up with a dress code to help districts revamp their outdated policies. The first two values are:

All students should be able to dress comfortably for school without fear of or actual unnecessary discipline or body shaming.

All students and staff should understand that they are responsible for
managing their own personal “distractions” without regulating individual students’ clothing/self-expression.

Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code

School dress codes should be sensitive and fair. Check your district’s policies and if they’re not up to par, consider pushing your administrators to make a positive change to school dress codes. All students should have the freedom to express themselves without being singled out due to gender, race, culture, or sexuality. Putting an end to dress code battles allows a deeper focus on providing all students with high-quality education.


5 Ways School Dress Codes Negatively Impact Some Students

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Kristen Nance

Senior Member

Kristen Nance is an elementary school teacher in Oregon. She is passionate about children's literature, has an affinity for black cats, and is obsessed with ravens. She reads every mystery novel she can get her hands on, and feels happiest when she is near the ocean.

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