Dress Code: Enforcement Based on Gender?

July 19, 2017
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Out of  229 students, 118 female and 111 male, in a study done by the Menlo-Atherton High School Feminist Club, it was shown that “64 percent of the girls responded that they had been called out for violating the dress code, compared to 12 percent of males” (Perrine). With this information, how can one be sure of the sincerity and fairness of her school’s dress code and the enforcement of it? The things people have brought opt the table concerning this controversial topic include sexism, biased enforcement, and rules, what the dress code says, what the students think, communication, and what boys and girls are hearing and learning from it. Each has validity in its own way, though each one needs to be looked into to determine whether its claims are true. Whether one’s gender has an effect on the enforcement of gender or not, it has been a hot topic online and in schools, and people want to know the truth.

Although most students see the dress code as relatively fair and have no real problem with it, there are some who feel as if it objectifies them in a sexist way. There has been a study shown that females get punished more often than a male student, as seen here in a bar graph made by the  Menlo-Atherton High School Feminist club. The chart was showing the consequences for violating the dress code, and the most shocking piece of evidence is when it showed the difference in consequences between male and female students; one of the most shocking ones was that around fifteen percent of boys got a warning in comparison to seventy-five percent of female students who also got a warning. Women have been or have been seen as being "scrutinized for the outfits they wear" (Halkidis). Students believe that the dress code states that it is a "bigger deal" if a girl wears shorts or clothes that have less material because they have "things to show" (McKenzie). At South Orange Middle School, Principal Uglialoro has written that “[dress] code continues to be a concern, specifically with our female students” (Uglialoro). This statement begs the question of “whose learning environment is being prioritized, and at whose expense" (Osborne)? The teachers say the learning environment in which students are placed is equal and gives everyone an equal chance learn, but the dress code that one’s school uses may be unintentionally prioritizing one gender’s education over another. Some claim that "Teacher[s] are walking the fine line between enforcing the dress code and shaming," neither of which are beneficial to the students of the school’s reputation (Docterman). The definition of the word sexist is “prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women or behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) By this definition, it would have to mean that a school’s dress code would have to be enforcing strict gender roles on students with harsh repercussions if there were a dress code violation, which most, not all, dress codes do not do. Along with the sexist judgments some see in the dress code, it can be seen as biased as well.

Most students feel as if the dress code is biased, and most of the claims support their claims. The survey done by Menlo-Atherton High School Feminist club showed that “males did received 40 dress code offenses, primarily due to displaying gang-related or explicit messages, whereas females reported 178 offenses, of which 153 were shorts violations” (Perrine). With this information, it can be seen that students who are female are breaking the dress code more often, are getting called out because of a teacher bias, or it shows that dress codes are directed more towards females than towards their fellow male students. Most dress codes around the U.S. are “implying that boys simply can’t control themselves around girls’ bodies” and that “administrators are pandering to a culture that too often transfers blame from men to their female victims" (Dockterman). Even though most students at the middle and high school age are not fully developed at that age, assuming that all students lack that self control creates another biased assumption. Students and parents want to know what the “big deal” is and agree with the argument that "what’s disruptive in the classrooms is not the clothing that girls are wearing but their bodies themselves" (Dockterman)? Teenage girls feel strongly about dress code, saying that it "raises potential issues of sexism, discrimination, education, and body- and self-image,” but it also tells boys that they have no self control when it comes to the female body, which isn't fair to them either (Kasdan). Though there are some who see the dress code as biased, the claims rely heavily on what the dress code says.

What the dress code says has a lot to do with how people act towards authority; whether fighting if or praising it, there will always be people who think that it is either right or wrong. About “sixty percent of schools in the United States have a strict dress code that is enforced” (National Center for Education Statistics), but the question still stands as to how the enforcement of it works in the school system that one is apart of. “[The] problem lies not in the actions or intentions of the students, but rather the Coverage Clause of the dress code itself” (Menlo-Atherton High School Feminist Club”. Though there are many books, such as So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, by Jean Kilbourne, that agree that there should be a certain way to dress for school, but don't agree with the way it is framed in schools and in dress code. Most dress codes back themselves up by saying, indirectly, that it is solely revolving around the idea of sex and gender. Gender norms are becoming outdated, as are the dress code restrictions. This article touches on weather the how particular things should be addressed, such as weather it goes against any morals and what kind of work one’s employee, or student, in this case, is doing. Teachers will often say that Issues with sexual harassment call for a stricter dress code.

The dress code often allows for students to be put in a safer learning environment, but students rarely think that and have other things to say concerning dress code. Students have a voice when it comes to dress code, and many are not afraid to voice their opinion. The letter from Menlo-Atherton High School Feminist Club to the school administration says that "it is ultimately the responsibility of parents, not the administration, to approve or disapprove of their child’s form of dress" (MAHS Feminist Club). Many parents and teens are asking questions such as why "spaghetti straps interfere with an understanding of algebraic equations" (Dell'Antonia)? "Many students can agree that “It's not our responsibility to make sure boys aren't distracted.” (Fox, Westside High School, Omaha, Neb). Although, in the teenage brain, there are some parts of the brain that are, “fairly well-developed early on, [including] the nucleus accumbens, or the rewards center, is one of them”(Edmonds), which means that everything is over exaggerated and a very big deal; when they are in love, that particular person is the only person they will ever love in their minds, attractive people are extremely attractive, and a breakup feels like the end of the world, which can often make teenagers an unreliable source. The students’ opinions matter, and communicating those concerns either help or hurt the state of which the current dress code regulations.

Communicating concerns about a particular issue will often result in one of two things, a change that one wants or a change that one does not want, but keeping silent will do nothing to help in the long run. Students and teachers need to have a strong, professional relationship for both to be successful, therefore communication is very important. Teachers often refer to the dress code when it comes to discipline, saying that “[it is] to prepare students for the next level” (Halkidis), but the students, particularly female students, see it as a judgment or a persecution against them. Parents are always telling their children that going to school will impact their future jobs, making it seem like the student is the employee. BizFilings defines an employee as “anyone who performs services if the one for whom services are being performed can control what will be done and how it will be done” (BizFilings), and communication between the employer and employee are very important so that there are no misunderstandings. With dress code, misunderstandings come up often and are in need of revisits. If  a teacher confronts a student about his or her dress code, it is often for an obvious reason, such as visible underwear or shorts being too short, but the way some dress codes are written out, way those regulations are carried out often seem biased or sexist, making the communication in that location weak. Some believe that sex  and gender should be “out of the question” (Dockterman) completely when it comes to the dress code, but instead of throwing the blame on “horny middle schoolers [and High Schoolers]” Kasdan) or just letting it go, everyone should try to work together and make the dress code equal. The communication aspect of keeping the dress code as it or changing it for the better depends on what young girls and boys are being told.

Young girls and boys are often told that the dress code’s purpose is intended to keep them safe, but it begs the question as to whom it is intended for. "[Schools and their dress codes] send the message that there's a problem with girls," [Jean Kilbourne] said. "It's basically telling girls that they are s***s and it is telling boys that they can't control themselves" (Kilbourne). The article goes on to talk about how "Under no circumstance should girls be told that their clothing is responsible for boys' bad behavior" (Haven Middle School, Evanston, Illinois). Girls realize that the dress code seems to be targeting them and that the administration sees their bodies as a distraction needing "stringent regulation" (D'Anastasio). This is telling these children that they can not control their own bodies, and that they need someone else to do it for them, which is not the case. The 'sexist dress code' signs are “also about what we – and our school administrators and teachers – are telling our boys" (Kasdan), which is neither fair to those boys or to the girls whom they attended school with. The strictness of the dress code can also be “telling women and girls that it's [the young woman's] responsibility to control boys and men and their presumed aggressiveness," [Ruthann Robson]. This message being sent out is saying that the fault of the way one acts in a school depend heavily on a girl’s way of dressing, "and it's presuming that one, all boys are heterosexual, and two, all boys are aggressive[,] and it's kind of giving them permission to be aggressive" (Robertson). With all said and done, a conclusion can be drawn that the dress code’s enforcement is extremely dependant on what one’s gender is.

The skeleton in the closet has revealed itself; the enforcement of dress code relies heavily on one’s gender. When the dress code’s enforcement becomes biased in such ways as this, it allows for discrimination based on one’s sex, something that cannot be affected or changed by an individual.When one is told that they can or can not wear something based solely on one’s gender, it created a learning environment where students are uncomfortable or unhappy with the way they are required to dress. When others begin to see a pattern concerning the enforcement of dress code, questioning and anarchy will break out amongst students. With claims of sexism, recognition of biasedness, what the dress code says, what students say, communication failures, and what girls and boys are hearing and learning from this. These claims need to be addressed; rather than believing that it will fix itself, people need to come together and acknowledge these problems and come to a conclusion on how to fix them.

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