The COVID-19 pandemic has, if nothing else, given us plenty of time to reflect on policies and practices that were once considered normal. One particular practice in need of close examination is the often oppressive implementation of school dress codes. With many in-person classes having been canceled across the country for almost a year now, and classes over Zoom seeming indefinite, many kids—especially young girls and non-binary femmes—aren’t being subjected to the predatory nature of dress codes.
One Teen Vogue article details otherwise for some schools across the country, though; the students interviewed noted that their schools are still enforcing dress codes online, continually restricting self-expression and perpetuating the sexualization of girls and non-binary individuals. These dress codes are taking a toll on students’ mental health—especially during a time when children are already having to give up so much else.
Interestingly, morale and productivity have increased in workplaces since the onset of the pandemic because employees aren’t confined to workplace professionalism in terms of appearance. So if adults aren’t being expected to conform to dress code-style “standards” while at work, why should kids?
Even more, why should kids have ever been forced to conform to outdated dress codes? Dress codes became law in the United States in 1969 after a case known as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District went up against the Supreme Court. The case was a result of several high school students protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. In a far-reaching decision, the Supreme Court ultimately concluded schools were legally allowed to limit students’ expression and dress if the institution felt what a student wore was a distraction or otherwise hindered the school’s learning environment.
Dress codes remain a way to stifle students’ creativity and expression. But more specifically, they’ve become a means to police the bodies of young girls and non-binary children, especially those with curvier bodies. Anais Rivero affirmed this in an article for Affinity, stating, “[Dress codes] are usually subjective in their severity depending on a [person’s] body type. For thinner, less voluptuous girls, low-cut shirts and leggings are easy to get away with, but curvier girls need to cover up much more.”
I have my own experience navigating the oppressive and sexualized nature of dress codes in school. When I was in middle school, I would regularly get in trouble for my clothes. Nothing was intrinsically wrong with the items themselves; the punishment I received was because having a curvy body caused administrators to sexualize what I wore. So I’d essentially be sent to an administrator’s office, get detention, or receive in-school suspension for dressing while curvy even if I was only 12 years old.
My administrators’ constant policing of my body affected my self-esteem over time. Dressing my body comfortably and confidently is still something I struggle with now. Dress codes can uphold rape culture and perpetuate victim-blaming by telling girls their bodies are inherently dangerous or distracting, causing young girls to be singularly tasked with avoiding potential violence by covering up their legs, shoulders, back, and chest. It should also be noted that dress codes tend to particularly harm female-presenting students who aren’t thin or white. In turn, this can create life-long insecurities that women are tasked with deconstructing as best as we can on our own.
Re-examining the existence and necessity of school dress codes could quite literally broaden conversations surrounding consent, rape culture, misogynoir, fatphobia, and body image. As academic Shauna Pomerantz deduced, “A deeper understanding of the discourses inherent in dress codes will help to challenge the enduring oppressions about gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality in our society: a fixity held firmly in place by the prohibitions, policies, and punishments of the school.”
Not only are school dress codes outdated, but they ultimately preserve a culture that jeopardizes the safety and overall well-being of young girls and non-binary individuals. With the pandemic already having a weighty effect on students’ mental health across the country, the least that can be done for kids is to ensure that when they’re able to resume in-person classes, they’re able to go as themselves. Going forward, students should feel confident knowing that a simple tank top or v-neck shirt won’t be seen as a hindrance or distraction to their learning environment.