As time progresses and our world changes, expression through appearance is becoming more and more popular. People of all ages have drifted from dressing for practicability and are now presenting themselves in ways that serve as reflections of their personalities. Fashion is developing as a method to stand out, have fun, and be unique. For some people, however, this has sparked controversy. While one individual may see nothing wrong with ripped jeans and colored hair, another might see these things as unprofessional or even intolerable. In 2010, more than half of public schools across the nation reported having a strict dress code, and that number is rising. Students already have to get up at early hours in the morning for school. Having to pick out clothes that will appeal to them while suiting the day’s weather and following a strictly enforced dress code is an unnecessary stressor. School dress codes should have more reasonable regulations and shouldn’t cause students to be disrespected.
In most cases, clothes are made for style and comfort more so than “modesty”. Shorts, tank tops, and heavy coats are just a few common articles of clothing prohibited or regulated by many strict dress codes across the country. Students deserve the chance to be cool in the summer and stay warm during the winter. Many dress codes don’t take into account the comfort of students in relation to the weather. Along with having children and teens cover up during hotter months, numerous schools across the country ban outerwear, like coats, jackets, and sweaters, from being worn inside the school building, even when schools can be inadequately heated. According to a study done by the National Women’s law center, forty-two percent of public D.C. high schools ban outerwear, while others place restrictions on what kinds students can wear.
“When we went through the metal detectors, all outerwear had to be removed. The principal expelled one boy for having a coat on. It was considered a security violation,” said a sixteen-year-old from Phelps A.C.E. High School. Security issues are a matter of national laws and shouldn’t be handled at the expense of every student’s comfort. When it’s hot outside, bans on certain lengths of shorts and shirts that show shoulders and collarbones cause students to feel gross and uncomfortable for reasons other than just the weather.
Often, school administrators say that the rules they create are set to keep boys and male staff members from being “distracted” by female bodies. When these regulations aren’t in place, boys are expected to focus less on their schoolwork and more on their female classmates, especially in a sexual manner. However, dress codes with this reasoning excuse the sexualization of underage girls and prioritize the education of boys. Messages are sent to girls that unless they present themselves a certain way, they aren’t entitled to human decency. Girls are the ones punished for being seen in an inappropriate and disrespectful manner. Instead of having the objectification of minors justified and ignored, children should be taught to love themselves and respect the bodies of others.
Along with being sexist, dress codes also tend to target students based on race, ethnicity, body type, gender identity, and sexuality. According to the same NWLC study from before, “the rules aren’t applied equally, either. Students report that black girls, and especially curvier students, are disproportionately targeted… by [the regulation of] skirt length and head wraps.’ A whopping 68% of public D.C. high schools ban head wraps worn for cultural reasons, yet allow hijabs for religious purposes. In these same schools, black girls are 20.8 times more likely to get suspended than white girls. Unclear rules and stereotypes of seeing black girls as older and more sexual drive unequal punishment and cultural insensitivity. Stereotypes are pushed for many other things, too. Heteronormative and traditional cisgender views show through in numerous dress codes. For example, the Achievement Prep Wahler Middle School Dress Code Policy clearly states this: “NOTE – boys are not allowed to wear earrings to school. Gentlemen with earrings will be asked to remove their earring(s) prior to entering the building. NO EXCEPTIONS.” Restrictions that presume students should act and present themselves certain ways based on their sex are traumatizing to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students. The standard for what a “good” girl or boy should be heavily impacts dress codes, creating rules like requiring all girls to wear skirts and bras, banning any kind of makeup, and making every boy wear a belt. Narrow stereotypes and visions based on gender, race, body type, and other things students can’t control are harmful and have no rightful place in dress codes.
Despite all this, dress codes can still be helpful. They can assist students in preparing for dress codes in their future workplace. Many regulations are reasonable and respectful. The prevention of clothing with bigoted, offensive, or vulgar symbols and text, for example, helps maintain a positive environment within schools. However, the microscopic rules of school dress codes that target certain groups of students are unnecessary, harmful, and don’t protect students in any way. I feel like children are able to judge what’s appropriate enough to wear in public, but everyone has different ideas on modesty. There isn’t a way to define an exact line between appropriate and inappropriate, but as of now, most school administrators and officials are too harsh on students. The bottom line is that the average dress code is unclear, discriminatory, and demeaning.
There are many possible solutions that could settle debates on dress codes. School uniforms are worn in nearly one-fifth of American public schools, but these are controversial as well. They aim to eliminate the stress of picking out clothing every morning, stop comparison between students, and hide financial differences. However, they tend to be very expensive, placing a burden on some families. Along with requiring students to buy multiple overpriced articles of clothing like skirts, dress pants, and sweaters, some schools even exploit giving their students the chance to dress out of uniform. Sousa Middle School requires its students to wear uniforms, but 12-year-old Kamaya, along with her family, sees this as unfair. Not every student can afford to keep buying uniforms. “…You have to pay [$2] to ‘dress down’ on Fridays… Why do you have to pay someone to actually wear clothes that we want to?” Uniforms also take away the ability for students to express themselves, experiment with their appearances, and feel unique.
Some schools allow their students to form dress code committees. These organizations let students collaborate and share ideas, building teamwork skills and giving then the chance to create rules they agree are fair. At the School Without Walls, however, having a dress code committee was unsuccessful. Seventeen-year-old Fatimah reports that they had several meetings and presented the new rules they created to their principal. “He made an announcement one time. He said, ‘The dress code will remain the same.’” The students’ hard work was disregarded and nothing changed. Dress code committees are a good idea in theory but aren’t guaranteed to work effectively.
Overall, unreasonable, discriminative, and unclear dress codes cause far more bad than good. Although they have some good effects, they cause staff members to discriminate against students and disrupt their educations. Schools need to be places where students are safe and free to learn. Dress codes should never be prioritized over this, especially when they target certain kinds of people. Children are the future leaders of America and it’s important that they are taught how to respect others and accept diversity. Many dress codes preach just the opposite, and that’s why they need to change.