When I write, most of my research begins with a Facebook post and informal chats with friends. I like hearing people’s thoughts on a topic before I start writing, to ensure a broader perspective. Twenty minutes after my post on dress codes went up, it was readily apparent that my thoughts on dress codes had been pretty cursory. A sampling: “Dress codes are about girls.” Hmm. “Dress codes punish girls who are heavier or curvier.” Wait, what? “Dress codes often punish students of color.” Seriously, if so, that’s really wrong. “Dress codes cost valuable instruction time.” Clearly, I needed to read more.
Curious, I went down the Google rabbit hole. The more I read, the more I became convinced that my friends were right. In many ways, dress codes are about girls. Typical codes mention hemline lengths and how shoulders should be covered. What male youths have you recently noticed wearing shorts with hemlines “no shorter than the fingertips when the arms are down by the sides”? It is also the rare male article of clothing that is off-the-shoulder or kept on by spaghetti straps. The language of most typical dress codes conveys that females are responsible for ensuring males can focus in the classroom, while demeaning males with the assertion that they lack the self-control to manage themselves.
And what of the comment that dress codes penalize those who are curvier or overweight? My friends were right again. Clothes hang differently on a fuller frame. The hemline of the same skirt or shorts worn by a curvier person will naturally sit higher. Is it fair to penalize a fuller-figured student for that which isn’t entirely in her control? The same goes for extra-tall students. A tall girl’s shorts might not pass the finger-length test, even though they may be relatively long in style.
Which brought me to the assertion that students of color, especially black students, are unfairly penalized by dress codes. Google hit after hit spoke to the validity of this statement. For example, a 2018 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found that black girls were 20 times more likely than white girls to be suspended for dress code violations in Washington, D.C., public schools. This is such a deeply emotional topic and warrants greater discussion than is possible here, but you might consider how cultural assumptions play a role in what is allowed or deemed appropriate for minority groups. I know my eyes have been opened.
When a student is accused of a dress code infraction, there is typically a hallway conversation about the out-of-regulation garment. If the student doesn’t have alternative clothing, he or she may be sent to the office to pick through extra clothes or may have to call an adult to bring clothing. If an adult can’t bring clothing, the student may be sent home or may have to sit out of class for the remainder of the day. In every possible scenario, valuable learning time is missed.
Many schools are working to update their dress codes to make them gender neutral, creating inclusivity for all gender identifications. They are also seeking to remove minority bias and to eliminate blaming female students for “distracting” males. For example, Austin ISD has recently revamped its dress code, stating that its new code “supports equitable educational access and is written in a manner that does not reinforce stereotypes.” The district goes further to mandate that “school staff shall enforce the dress code consistently and in a manner that does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, immigration status or any other basis prohibited by law, that adversely affects the student.”
At its simplest, the dress code says that students “shall be dressed and groomed in a manner that is clean and neat and that will not be a health or safety hazard to themselves or others.” AISD states that certain body parts must be covered for all students at all times, and it spells out those body parts. The policy, which takes effect at the start of the 2019-20 school year, goes on to outline what students may wear, as long as it doesn’t violate the basic principles of the code and what cannot be worn.
Before I educated myself on all of the problems with typical dress codes, I was all for covering as much of any child as possible. However, my opinion has completely reversed. I don’t want my daughters to get the message that how they choose to express themselves with their dress should determine how they are treated. I want my son to be respectful to all people, no matter what they are wearing. And I don’t want to support the penalization of any minority group. Ever. I appreciate the steps AISD has taken towards inclusivity, and I hope this represents a positive change that will be seen in other Austin-area school districts.
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.