Written by Meghan, RSEI Educator | Published September 30th, 2019

At the Responsible Sex Education Institute, we provide sex education at a variety of settings, both in and out of school. Some of the schools we work with have adopted SSA (standard school attire, aka uniforms), while others utilize dress code policies. While acknowledging that people have lots of different feelings about dress code policies, we wanted to dig in to the topic a bit more.

Let’s first start by outlining breaking down some of the reasons why schools adopt dress code policies and the issues that can come along with these justifications.

  • Schools often say that their dress codes promote professionalism and prepare young people for the work force.
    • The expectation set by school dress codes is often rooted in a white standard and assumes that all students strive for the same type or level of “professional” work.
  • Schools often defend dress codes by saying that they reduce classroom distractions.
    • Usually what they’re talking about are distractions of a sexual nature. These rules punish the person who is being perceived as sexual rather than the engaging in conversations with the person who is “being distracted” about respect and bodily autonomy (Pudding, 2019).
    • Other distractions related to clothing are linked to references of drug, gang affiliation or other obscene content, which is highly subjective and can differ greatly from one school to the next.
  • Lastly, some schools adopt a dress code to “level the playing field” and “reduce disparities” that could be apparent in clothing.
    • This is the most common justification for SSA or uniforms. In addition to school enforcing dress codes sometimes communities also rally behind these policies out of fear that without them schools will become environments where “club attire” or revealing clothing is the norm.

We’ve already begun to talk about how dress codes can add to student stress and disproportionately punish certain students. In the resource section of this blog we’ve cited two very thoughtful and compelling articles (Vox, 2018 and The Pudding, 2019) that take in-depth looks, both from qualitative and quantitative approaches, at the harm many dress code policies press on their students (especially femme and POC students). From these articles we’ve compiled a list of negatives that often result from dress code policies and their enforcement:

  • Problematic enforcement
    • School administrators have often have discretion in determining whether or not something is a dress code violation. This can introduce bias in who must follow the rules more closely as well as in what the consequences of a dress code violation are.
    • Some schools have been critiqued for their inappropriate requirements of students when they have received a dress code violation. Everything from administrators asking students to bend over, jump up and down, and band-aid over nipples to requiring students to wear shamefully labeled “Dress Code Violation” outfits have been recorded as “solutions” for dress code infractions. These are approaches are shame-based and are rooted in adults sexualizing the bodies of young people.
  • Dress codes often focus on femme bodies
    • The body parts that are typically deemed as violations to a dress code are more commonly highlighted by styles of clothing that are typically marketed in a “Girls” section of clothing (e.g. backs, midriff, cleavage, shoulders and legs, among others)
  • Re-enforces messages that “whiteness” is the norm or “default”
    • Dress codes often target styles that are popular particularly among minority groups, thereby normalizing and prioritizing “whiteness.”
    • Rules on how hair is to be styled and worn has direct bias against natural hairstyles for POC
    • While this point isn’t inherently linked to sex education it felt as though it would be a disservice not to mention. More can be learned about dress codes racist history in the articles linked in the Resource sections.
  • A clothing item could be a violation on one body but not on another based-on how the clothing fits. This then punishes a person based on their body not based on the specific clothing items.
    • For example, the same dress on a shorter person may meet length requirements but on a taller person may not.
  • Dress code violations often result in missed learning opportunities
    • Many dress codes can cause Black students to fall behind academically, according to a 2018 National Women’s Law Center study.
  • Policies are often out of date or have been in place for many years without question.
    • Traditional gender roles, as well as the gender binary, are at the root of many dress code policies. Many outline what is “appropriate” clothing for boys and girls separately (such as no earrings for boys or requiring girls to wear skirts).
    • Title IX requires schools to let youth dress in alignment with the gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth, but we know that many times dress code policies are gendered and are enforced based on sex assigned at birth rather than gender identity.

So, what are the options when our outdated dress codes are causing harm and creating inequitable learning environments? The lingering fears that without a dress codes schools would no longer have any regulation on exposure may still exist so getting schools to opt out of dress codes altogether may be a far off dream. However, there are ways that schools can do dress codes better:

  • Oregon NOW created a model student dress code in 2016 (linked below). This dress code aims to be more inclusive and less disruptive to students and could be used as a jumping off point for schools looking to revise their dress code.
  • Schools can solicit input from their students about dress code policies and language to ensure that they aren’t perpetuating harmful norms or stereotypes
  • Schools can update their existing dress code policies to be more intentional, culturally sensitive, gender-neutral and body-positive

Of course, if a school or district is struggling to decide what their policy should or should not include, they can always eliminate the dress code all together. Abolishing the dress code can empower the students and their families to make decisions about how they are dressing for school, which emphasizes the importance of bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy is, arguably, an even more important message for young people to receive than is the standard of professionalism that dress codes supposedly promote. Evidence has already shown that even small changes to make dress codes inclusive have had positive impacts on students’ experiences and, in many cases, the way students are dressing has not changed dramatically with or without a policy in place.

Resources for Further Reading