Dress codes: sex and stigma

I was in middle school when the spaghetti strap phase of the late 90’s hit (yes, I’m old). Basically, all tank tops that came out for a year or two, were spaghetti strap tops. For those who are uninitiated, spaghetti straps are just very thin straps on an otherwise normal tank top. Almost immediately, this caused moral panic as young girls were now showing far more skin than society thought they should. So, for most of my middle school career, 6th-8th grade, the only tank tops we could find, were banned under our school dress code.

There are plenty of other hot button body parts, for instance, the belly button. Even though the midriff is not a body part particularly associated with sex, many dress codes demand that it be completely covered. Some dress codes even require cleavage to be completely covered. Any person who develops sizable breasts early in life can tell you how annoying and frankly useless this sort of rule is.

Dress codes and sexism

Dress codes in schools disproportionately affect girls. The dress code rules for girls are often longer and more involved than those listed for boys. Girls’ skirt and shorts lengths are policed while the lengths of boys’ pants are not. Because boys generally do not have to worry about things like bra straps, they are not required to keep them hidden, but many school dress codes do not allow visible bra straps.

Why are bra straps, of all things, such a crime against the nation? The pretty thin justification is usually something about how showing parts of your underwear is inappropriate. But there’s a more insidious reason. Supposedly, by disallowing bra straps, we are saving boys from having to control the lust these straps inspire.

I will say that most dress codes do discourage boys from showing their underwear but often boys’ clothes simply don’t show underwear and when they do for stylistic reasons, boys are simply told to pull their pants up, not forced to otherwise modify their outfits, not even made to tighten belts. I have seen a girl forced to tie her sweatshirt around her waist because a little of her underwear peaked out when she leaned forward. It was that or be forced to change into her gym clothes.

This is basically a scarlet letter. Being asked to change during the school day is obvious to one’s peers, especially when forced to change into something like gym clothes. This is an established punishment for dress code violations. The other way dress code violations are often enforced is by sending the student home for the day. This not only attracts attention, but also interrupts the student’s learning for entirely superficial reasons.

Are we really robbing students of hours of learning and forcing them to work extra hard to catch up just because of clothing choices? Yes, yes we are. 

Dress codes and moral panic

Are we, in our moral panic over short shorts, midriffs, and bra straps, actually sexualizing these young girls? I’m inclined to say yes. Clothes are clothes until they are assigned meaning. An outfit is not, say, “slutty” or “sophisticated”, until someone deems it so. Until then, they are just clothes. By forcing girls to consider the sexual gaze of others, I contend we are non-consensually sexualizing their bodies and clothing.

In writing about this topic, Amber Thomas notes:

This practice of commenting on someone else’s body and imposing sexuality upon them (whether they intended to be “sexy” or not) falls squarely into the American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of sexualization. And while the APA acknowledges that anyone can be sexualized, they suggest that girls are the most at risk.

It seems important to note that there is inward and outward sexualization. For instance, thoughts in your head come unbidden. You don’t have to be trying to have a sexual thought about a person, place, or thing to end up having one. But when you turn it outwards and start commenting or acting on said sexual thoughts, you are sexualizing the person without their permission. This is really doubling down in the case of minors because they can’t legally consent in the first place.

So much bad dress code messaging is heaped on girls at such a young age that it tends to follow them throughout life and workplace dress codes are not really an improvement. Girls and women are told their whole lives how they should cover and uncover their bodies. They are told that they are being sexual when they were not trying to be. They are told that they are not sexual enough with their bodies when they are not trying to be. The messaging is ultimately that no matter what you do with your body and how you cover it, you are wrong.

Dress codes are binary

Compounding the damage of dress codes is the fact that they are largely binary and expect all children to fall on one side of the rules or the other. Things are beginning to change for non-binary children but some dress codes are wielded as a weapon towards kids who simply don’t fit the binary. Someone who identifies as “he/him” may be just as interested in wearing a skirt as anyone else, but there are places where this simply isn’t allowed because it challenges the binary and there is a dress code to hide bigotry behind.

To be clear, this also sexualizes children. Again, clothes are clothes until someone assigns them meaning. It is not uncommon for people to try to sexualize nonbinary children early in an attempt to “understand” them. Rather, what happens is that they are subjected to the sexualization of their clothes and bodies while also having their very identities questioned. For children who are developing into asexual identities, this must be extra confusing. How can your body and clothes be tied to sexuality when you are asexual?

So, with binary dress codes, we are sexualizing large groups of children in an effort to save them from being sexualized. By making them aware of how adults and peers might perceive their clothing as sexual, we make kids uncomfortable. Your sexual thoughts about a child are never the burden of the child. Abuse is never the fault of the abused.

Dress codes and intersectionality

Black people and POC are some of the most discriminated against in most arenas, but especially when it comes to dress codes. Things like Black people wearing their hair as it naturally comes out of their heads, is often considered inappropriate in both school and workplace settings.

As with many other subjects, intersectionality is a must when considering things like dress codes or doing away with them. We can’t reform in any meaningful way if we leave out entire groups who are heavily affected. 
Is the answer to simply let kids pick out their own clothes and wear whatever they want? My very personal opinion is yes unless there is a safety issue. Is that realistic, probably not. But absent the puritanical attitude that helps perpetuate draconian dress code rules, I don’t actually think kids would do that bad a job of covering themselves.

Empowering kids

I think the actual answer is comprehensive sex education at an earlier age. It is better to teach respect than to expect the victim of a lack of respect to change. If we taught things like consent, bodily autonomy, and respect for other people’s choices, I contend this would be largely a non-issue. Something that could and should be dealt with on a case by case basis. We already know that positive reinforcement works better than negative consequences.

There is a way to empower kids to make clothing choices that will serve them best, but punishing them for stylistic differences is ridiculous. Teaching boys they should be protected from girls’ bodies serves no one. This falls under the umbrella of victim blaming. Girls are sexualized by adults for their clothing, boys are told girls are doing this to them, boys learn that girls use their bodies as weapons and girls learn that their bodies are shameful and should be hidden. Then we send them out into the world to harshly judge the clothing of others and the abusive cycle continues.

The more kids understand about their bodies and their rights to protection and autonomy, the more they will be able to protect themselves when someone does try to arbitrarily sexualize them or their clothing. At the end of the day, it’s not really about the clothing that kids wear or how they wear it, but society’s attitude towards such things, so a change in attitude could be all that is needed to help kids feel safer and more secure in themselves.

Notable Replies

  1. While it’s undeniable that school dress codes hurt girls the most, I see them as an insult to everyone.

    Girls are forced to dress modestly because ‘‘immodest apparel’’ may ‘‘distract the boys’’. As a male, I take offense to the idea that women should have to censor themselves over the belief that men lack the ability to function outside of our sex drives.

  2. I didn’t think about it at all at school. In the one case I did, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference whatever they wore.

    I don’t see the point of complaining about this, it comes off as awkward and it is just how society is. Is justifying less modest outfits a good thing? Are there any societies which don’t have strict codes?

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