Dress Code in American School

While there are a plethora of problems within the American school system, in this paper we will focus on the growing issue of how dress codes disproportionally target female students and the negative effects this has on their self-view. The first ever school dress code was established in “1969 by the U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District” (School Dress Codes). This historical court case permitted schools to limit student expression, so long as there is a legitimate reason behind it. States today have utilized that decision to mandate their own laws that permit schools to create dress codes to “promote a safe, disciplined school environment, prevent interference with school work and discipline, and to encourage uniformity of student dress” (School Dress Codes).

The intended purpose of dress code, in of itself, is a positive one meant to further prepare students for the workforce and its expectations. However, the problems come along when schools decided what attire is considered a distraction and how to go about punishing dress code violations. In order to explore the harmful effects of school dress codes, we will analyze it from a sociological perspective rather than a traditional psychological one. In sociology, there are three major paradigms when it comes to sociological thinking and understanding. To further discuss the harmful effects of school dress code on both male and female students we will view it from the sociological perspective of Symbolic Interactionism. In a general sense, Symbolic Interactionists analyze the world by dissecting “how people act on the basis of meaning they attribute to others” and how “people continuously reinterpret and reevaluate their knowledge and information in everyday encounters” (Benokraitis, 19). Moreover, when talking specifically about education, Symbolic interactionist focus on “individual and small group issues, such as teacher-student interactions and the self-fulfilling prophecy” (Mooney, 339). With both of those bits of information in mind, the issue of dress code policies will be analyzed one the same level, in that, the negative affects school dress code can have on female students self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The main way this issue will be dissected within Symbolic interactionism will be with labeling theory. A theory developed by Howard Becker that states, “society’s reaction to behavior is a major fact in defining oneself or others as deviant” (Benokraitis, 132). The whole issue of school’s dress code boils down to labeling theory because by design, the whole purpose of dress code is to define clothing considered deviant and punishing students who violate the rules of dress. In most American schools, any clothing that shows a considerable amount of skin is liable for a dress code violation; this includes tops that expose shoulders, ripped jeans, any dress, skirt or short that is above the knee, jeggings, and more extremely, coming to school in excessively tight clothing. This type of clothing, specifically, is determined to be a distraction to the learning environment and thus students face, suspension, detention, or a disciplinary write up for wearing them. Clothing that qualifies as a dress code violation disproportionally targets female students as “many dress codes are explicitly gender specific or are at least selectively enforced such that they impact female students disproportionately” (Meredith). And it is this that is the heart of the problem with school dress code. By continuing to tell girls their body and how they decide to dress their body is under inspection and scrutiny presents a problematic message, “one in which women are frequently sexualized and portrayed as ―sex objects” to both male and female students. (Meredith). As it can safely be assumed, female students do not buy clothes and get dressed for school with the sole purpose of disrupting the learning environment and arousing their fellow classmates.

However, some school administrators uphold attitudes that lead us to believe otherwise based off their behaviors displayed toward female students. When parents approach schools with their concerns with updating current dress code policies, “A common thread among school justifications for sex-specific dress codes is that provocative clothing will distract their male classmates or make male teachers feel uncomfortable” (Meredith). One example of this line of thinking can be found at Honesdale High School where Kate Wilson was removed from class after she was told that her outfit of a baggy T-shirt and leggings was “making the teachers uncomfortable” and her principle stated how “distracting it was to see [Wilson] walk upstairs” (Lakritz). Another, perhaps, a more condemning example can be found at a Forest Hill high school where a female was given an in school suspension for wearing ripped jeans and told: “that she needed to consider the guys in her class and their hormones when choosing her wardrobe” (Lakritz). While these may just be two examples, the message sent by some school dress codes and their administrators is very clear: a female student’s right to education is beneath male right to comfort.

A secondary message that dress code implies to female students, is one of body shaming. In most American high school dress codes, there are rules against clothing that is considered “excessively tight or form fitting”. While this rule is fine in of itself, the grievances come along when girls with specific body types become targets. It is largely unreasonable to believe that all adolescent girls will have the same body type and that all clothing will fit them the same; which is why many people believe: if you will not permit one student to wear it, there should be no exceptions to the rule. However, a South Carolina principle seems to think differently; as he was reported telling a female student, “unless you are a size zero or two and you wear something like that, even though you’re not fat, you look fat” (Lakritz). This statement was brought on as the reasoning behind her dress code violation when wearing leggings and it is very easy to see how damaging that line of thinking can be on a girl’s body image. Another example of this ideology is shown when seventeen-year-old Kelsey Anderson was allegedly told she violated dress code by being “busty” and “plus size” and forced to leave the room. (Lakritz). In both instances, the student was clearly told that her body, and not the clothes directly, were the problem and that they deserved to be punished for it. In both cases, girls of smaller sizes were permitted to wear the same outfits, but because they had larger bodies, under dress code it became a problem of form-fitting clothing. By openly telling students that one body type is acceptable while the other is problematic, administrators present an environment open to body shaming. This is especially concerning when you consider the tendency of young girls to “internalize cultural perspectives on their physical selves, conceiving of themselves in sexual terms preoccupied with physical attractiveness” (Meredith). This toxic line of thinking can easily lead to a girl developing a harmful self-image which later could give way to the development of eating disorders. Outside of school dress code teaching girls that their bodies are sexual, this toxic attitude towards young girls and their choice of dress teaches male students that “girls’ bodies are inherently sexual, provocative, dangerous, and that harassment is inevitable” (Meredith).

By siting male comfort as the reason behind why girls should cover up and labeling certain clothes and by extent girls who wear those clothes as deviant, school dress codes are further perpetuating the idea that “boys will be boys” and clothes dictate consent. If male students are constantly shown and told that girls who dress “provocatively” are the problem, it can lead to a man who holds and later imposes those same beliefs. Often time in rape cases, what a woman was wearing is used as justification behind the crime, as many people believe that “women dressed in provocative clothing invited sexual advances and placed themselves at risk of sexual assault” (Johnson). The type of clothing that is considered provocative in adult life, is often the exact same type of clothing that was considered deviant and a distraction by school dress codes during childhood. As when asking men what clothing is considered provocative and an invitation for sex, they commonly refer to clothing such as shirts with “low necklines, short skirts, and tight and clinging clothes” (Johnson). When you take this attitude towards the way women dress and place it back in the place that created it, schools, it creates a toxic and unsafe environment for women seeking education. Statistics show that “an estimated 20 percent of women on campus […] will be sexually assaulted while in college” (Mooney, 263). While there are many different factors into what causes a person to rape, by modernizing school dress code and removing its toxic ideology, it could help reduce the number of men who view women’s dress in that manner and hopefully reduce the amount of victim blaming. In conclusion, while American school dress codes does a serve a vital purpose in preparing students for the expectations of the workforce, it is outdated and perpetuates a negative ideology about women and the way they choose to dress.

The negative effects it has on young girls include but are not limited to: teaching them that their body is a sexual object, their right to education is beneath a male’s comfort, and that they should be ashamed of their bodies. In comparison, a negative effect it has on male students is that it teaches a very toxic message to young boys that a woman’s worth is based off of how she is dressed, therefore, you treat a woman based from her clothing choice. The solution to combat these issues with dress codes is a simple one of: updating current dress code policies to reflect modern attitudes towards dress. While the issue of dress code is not seen as the most important problem with American schools, it has just as much of an impact on shaping the minds of students as traditional schooling.

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Dress Code in American School. (2022, Jan 03). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/dress-code-in-american-school/