When Are School Dress Codes Sexist?

Bare midriffs violate many school dress codes. Maria Taglienti-Molinari/Stockbyte/ Getty Images

School dress codes are on the rise. As of 2014, 58% of US public schools have a "strict dress code enforced" according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This an 11 percent increase from 1999, when 47.4% of schools had such dress codes.  

Dress Codes are not popular with everyone, though. There has been a backlash against dress codes in recent years, particularly from students and women's advocacy groups that claim that many school dress codes are sexist.

Why Do Schools Have Dress Codes?

There are a variety of reasons that schools adopt dress codes. Dress codes are usually adopted to protect student safety or to maintain a constructive learning environment. Schools, school districts and various states can all have very different school dress code policies or laws. Several states have laws giving school districts authority to create dress codes. Only the state of Massachusetts differs in this regard. Massachusetts passed a law stating that school dress codes  "shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance except if such officials determine that such personal dress and appearance violate reasonable standards of health, safety and cleanliness."

Dress codes designed to protect students safety often prohibit wearing clothing that is physically dangerous or could be used as a weapon (think spiked clothing or thick chains.) They may also ban known gang-related attire or clothing that promotes violence or illegal activities.

Dress codes meant to "maintain a constructive learning environment" can take on a variety of forms. The statement itself is open for wide interpretation.  Dress codes that are adopted to maintain a constructive learning environment are usually meant to encourage students to dress with a sense of pride in themselves and in such a way that minimizes distraction so that students will focus on learning rather than on what other students are wearing.


Opposition against these dress codes has become much more vocal in recent years. Students and parents alike have taken to creating media campaigns that have gone viral across the nation.  Examples of this include Maggie Sunsieri's documentary "Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code" that featured several girls who stated that they felt they were unfairly being blamed for boys being distracted when wearing clothing that exposed their collarbones. 

There have been other viral social media posts from 2013-2016 in which a teen girl wearing a tasteful and trendy outfit claims to have been found to violate their school's dress code, complaining that the dress codes are unfair towards girls.

The thing is, fashion and trends change over time.  I worked in a public middle school from 2007 until 2015.  During my first several years I saw mostly boys violating the dress code.  Most of the dress code violations were from boys who had their underwear showing and pants sagging.  Boys wearing t-shirts cut into a wife beater style made up almost all of the remaining violations. 

Sagging pants with exposed underwear and wife beater cut t-shirts for boys have largely gone out of fashion. Now yoga pants and leggings for girls are in.

What Makes a Dress Code Sexist?

The US public school system is largely run by local communities instead of a centralized federal system.  In other words, local schools and school districts make most of the rules for local schools.  Different areas and regions of the country have different reasons for choosing to have a school dress code.  

Some educational research studies have shown dress codes to have positive effects on learning and the school environment, while other studies have shown no effect or negative outcome.  

I believe that the difference in how effective the outcome is related to the needs and culture of the local community combined with how well any dress code policy itself supports that local area.

 What works for a dress code in Fairbanks, Alaska may be totally inappropriate in Gainesville, Florida.

Not every community will want or need to have a dress code for their local school. Other communities may wish to adopt a dress code to uphold basic community standards of decency or to prepare students for future workplace rules.  

It is the nature of defining what is distracting in the learning environment that opens the door for sexist dress codes to be adopted. Clothing that is sexually provocative or highly revealing can be very distracting to members of the opposite sex , or even same-sex peers. Just imagine how some outfits could garner attention of the "Did you see what he/she was wearing?"

To address this issue, some school dress codes clearly define skirt and short lengths, whether or not midriffs can be exposed, and how much of a chest area or upper torso must be covered. Certain types of clothing, like tight yoga pants, leggings, 'wife beater style t-shirts, halter tops, or spaghetti strap tops will be banned under a dress code. Other schools may adopt policies defining what length or coverage of clothing must be combined with an otherwise revealing style of garment. For example, wearing a top that is fingertip length with yoga or stretch pants.

Dress codes can become sexist when they disproportionately target one gender of students over another. Dress codes need to be written in a way that applies to both genders, and they need to be enforced consistently as well in order to avoid being sexist.

Dress Codes that avoid being sexist:

  • Apply in a similar way to both boys and girls.  Rather than only "no exposed bra straps" try "no exposed undergarments, including boxers, bra straps, panties, etc."  
  • Limit banning of clothing on the basis of being distracting to the opposite sex to clear extremes of community standards.  
  • Are enforced equally and consistently.  When dress codes are only applied to certain groups of students or in certain situations, they target one group over another.
  • Are reviewed and updated with community input every five to ten years at minimum.  Changes in fashion will mean that the code will need to be reviewed in order to make certain it continues to be fair.  

A Tip On Explaining a Fair Dress Code to Your Teen

One of the main reasons middle and high schools adopt dress codes is to avoid students dressing in a distracting manner, specifically one that is very sexually provocative. Be careful discussing the reasoning behind these codes with your teen. Keep the focus on how clothing choices are a way to set personal boundaries rather than the dress code being the result of how other people might react.

Teens are savvy enough to spot a rule that doesn't make any sense. Telling a teen that they need to dress a certain way because other people may not respond appropriately makes little sense. A teen will quickly tell you that people should just act appropriately. Bringing the focus back to setting personal boundaries places the responsibility on the teen's action –in this case, what they chose to wear.

It should be possible to explain any fair dress code to a teen in terms of personal boundaries. If it is difficult to explain why violating the dress code would also mean not setting a personal boundary, it could be a sign that the dress code is sexist.

What Can I Do To Change A Sexist Dress Code?

If you believe that your child's school needs to make some changes to the school dress code, start with reviewing the policy itself.  This is usually found in the school' handbook of rights and responsibilities. Your child should have received one at the beginning of the school year.   You can always request another copy. Review the language of the code and think about what you believe needs to be changed.  

Next, you will need to find out what your local process will be for changing the dress code. You can watch school newsletters or check the school and district websites to see if there is a parent policy group that gives input on the dress code - if so, this is the group you need to speak with or join.

If you are still unsure, then ask a teacher or school administrator. Make sure to that you express your concerns in a positive and non-threatening manner. You want to let the school staff know that you are wanting to change the policy to keep or encourage a positive school environment. Even if you feel very angry about the policy you will likely get more cooperation from school personnel by letting them know you want a positive outcome rather than just going on an angry rant.  

You may also be able to get support for changing or updating a dress code by working with your schools' PTA/PTO or school site council. Dress codes have become a contentious issue in education, becoming a successful advocate working towards a policy that treats all students fairly can be a great way for any parent to be involved in their child's school.

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