School dress codes in America are meant to inform both students and parents about the appropriate attire for school in order to maximize student productivity. However, claims have been made that school dress codes in America have been enforced in a discriminatory manner, disproportionately targeting specific populations, including female and African American students. Critics of school dress codes argue that such targeting impacts the educational experience of students, disrupting their school days and thus the instruction they receive.
In general, girls are dress-coded more often than boys because many elements of schools’ dress codes target girls’ clothes more than boys’ clothes. At East Longmeadow High School in Boston, six out of nine dress code regulations targeted female students. According to National Public Radio (NPR), most dress codes require shorts or skirts to be a certain length and ban clothes that bare shoulders or midriffs.
Dress codes may also affect girls more than boys due to popular fashion trends: female celebrities often dress in clothes such as tube tops, crop tops or shirts with see-through material.
“The media is popularizing new clothes and styles that may not be appropriate for school. Clothes that are displayed in store windows are generally those that are more revealing in order to attract attention. On the other hand, popular fashion for boys consists of khakis, basketball shorts and t-shirts,” Junior Erica Lam said.
Another reason for the disproportionate effect dress codes have on different genders is the sexualization of women: in 2008, a study found that half of American magazines portray women in a sexual manner. The prominence of the sexualization of women could be a reason why girls’ appearances are viewed as a distraction in school, which may increase their likelihood of being dress-coded. According to USA Today, by banning strapless shirts and tank tops, “the dress code sends girls the message that their bodies are a problem” and that they are to be blamed for boys’ behaviors.
“There is a history of sexism. For centuries, women have been objectified. However, we can help fix this problem by increasing female representation in school boards and helping people understand that the sexualization of women is a problem,” Junior Alyssa Chen said.
Although the dress code significantly impacts girls, boys are not exempt from consequences. Boys often disobey the dress code by wearing hats or clothing with inappropriate language or images.
African-American students make up another demographic that is also disproportionately affected by nationwide school dress codes. Dreadlocks and cornrows, hairstyles that are notable in African-American culture, are not permitted at some schools, such as the Christ the King Parish School in La. The New York Times cited that 11-year-old Faith Fennidy was unenrolled from this school for wearing braided hair extensions. The school’s handbook states that “only the student’s natural hair is permitted. Extensions, wigs or hairpieces of any kind are not allowed.”
“Although the dress code exists so that students are comfortable and productive at school, it is unfair that certain groups of students are targeted more than others. A student should not feel as if the clothes they wear or the hairstyle they have, especially if they are hallmarks of their culture, are unwelcome at school,” Senior Layla Yun said.