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Davis, California

Thursday, February 22, 2024

(Re)Fashioning Gender: School Dress Code

When I was in eighth grade, I got sent to the office in the middle of geometry class because of the skirt I was wearing. Really. That’s it. A skirt. It wasn’t even a particularly offensive skirt. It didn’t have any images of weapons or defamatory slogans on it. It was just a plain old denim skirt. It was tacky maybe, but definitely not offensive. So why, you ask, would anyone send such a respectful student like myself to the office for such a harmless offense?

Well, the answer is the school dress code.

Ah, the school dress code. The term brings back vivid memories of casual shirts tucked haphazardly into pants and sneakers worn with virtually every type of outfit imaginable because other kinds of shoes simply were not allowed at my public school. I remember telling myself in the eighth grade, at least I was no longer subjected to those hideous brown, yellow and green uniforms that my old private school required. This was comforting knowledge, but I ended up failing my geometry test because I missed the entire review session while I was changing out of my skirt into the more “appropriate” hand-me-down sweatpants that were left in the lost and found. They had odd stains and smelled like somebody else’s body odor, but hey, at least my thighs weren’t showing.

School dress codes weren’t always a thing. In fact, a lot of public schools were hesitant to implement dress codes, probably because they didn’t see a need to police the bodies of 10-year-olds. But dress codes have become increasingly popular over the years, requiring students to wear clothing that is considered to be appropriate and non-distracting. The question that has recently sparked the most controversy, however, is whose learning environment is being protected? And, more importantly, at whose expense?

One of the most prevalent rules of a dress code prohibits students to wear clothing that reveals too much of their body. No tank tops, no short shorts, no dresses or skirts that bypass the oh-so-infallible “fingertip rule.” This rule, which prohibits a student’s fingertips from going beyond their skirts, shorts, etc., overwhelmingly affects a great deal more girls than it does boys. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to shop for non-revealing clothing when you’re a teen or even a pre-teen girl, especially in the summertime. So it’s really no surprise that, according to the M-A Feminist Club, 64 percent of the 118 female students they surveyed said they’d been punished for violating their school dress code. Compare this to the 12 percent of 111 male students who were surveyed, and the repercussions of these codes become clear.

While girls are sent home or given lost-and-found items to cover up, boys remain in class and “undistracted.” But what does this say to students about their own bodies? The message seems clear: Girls must be sure to cover themselves in order to protect their male peers from losing focus. And boys must remain privy to the idea that they need protecting from female bodies, as if they are virtually unable to use any other portion of their brain that does not revolve around sexual arousal.

As college students, many of whom have attended public schools that implement dress codes, it is necessary to recognize the repercussions of being subjected to these types of rules. Being fearful of our bodies since elementary school has surely had some kind of impact on the ways in which we perceive ourselves. A lot of the time, being told and re-told to be aware of how you present yourself to others makes you overly conscious about your body. This has various results — namely, eating disorders and other types of self-mutilation; but also a strange perception of ourselves and others that has much to do with the problematic ways the school system tells us how to see ourselves. Men too, are largely influenced by dress codes as they learn to see themselves as innately hypersexual criminals that aren’t to be trusted.

What this does is create a kind of collective case of body dysmorphia that influences many aspects of our lives. Although we may have graduated from high school long ago, we haven’t necessarily graduated from the destructive influences of the school dress codes that taught us how to perceive our own bodies.

CHELSEA SPILLER can be reached at ctspiller@ucdavis.edu.


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