Why school dress codes may be harmful to girls

Are school dress codes targeting girls? Not necessarily. But the notion that girls are responsible for boys being respectful, which dress codes enforce, can be a damaging precedent to set.

KUTV 2News
Gabi Finlayson, student at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, was asked to cover her shoulders at a school dance because her dress was in violation of the school's dress code.

Gabi Finlayson, student at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, recently arrived at her school’s Preference Dance, only to be told that her dress was inappropriate and that she had to cover her shoulders with a shawl. Embarrassed, she retreated to her car to get a jacket, which she had to wear for the rest of the night over the Audrey Hepburn-inspired dress she purchased in Paris.

For many girls, running afoul of a school dress code is about much more than a high schooler’s ruined dance – practically a rite of passage – it can also send the message that girls are automatically at fault when boys are not respectful.

“Somehow my shoulders are sexualized,” Finlayson told KUTV. “Like it’s my responsibility to make sure the boys’ thoughts are not unclean.”

Rhonda Bromley, principal of Lone Peak High School, said that students and teachers had both approved the dress code, and that Finlayson’s violation was dealt with “by one of my female school employees in a very careful and sensitive way.”

According to KUTV, the dress code stated that backless dresses could not extend beyond the shoulder blades, that straps must be at least two inches unless a shawl was worn, and that cleavage must be covered.

Finlayson was aware of the dress code, but didn't think her dress was in violation. And even though the situation was dealt with subtly, she still felt that the school was shaming her.

Punishments surrounding school dress codes sometimes aim to shame violators so as to discourage them from repeating the behavior in the future. One school even has an actual “shame suit” for dress code violators. 

“The research is pretty clear that it’s never appropriate to shame a child, or to make a child feel degraded or diminished,” Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, a social work professor at the University of Michigan, told LiveScience. He cited problems including increased anxiety, depression, and aggression as results of this kind of discipline.

Girls are far from the only victims of overextensions of school dress codes. As the Monitor previously reported, last September a Native American kindergartener in Texas was sent home from school for his braided hair, which was a symbol of his Malachi faith.

The goal of most dress codes is to discourage inappropriate dress and cut down on distractions in the classroom. But the result is often institutions telling impressionable young people that their identity and the way they choose to present themselves is unimportant, rather than actually focusing the students’ attention on learning.

But this is particularly damaging to girls who are simultaneously taught that their value comes from being sexualized and to stifle their sexuality.

“Maybe instead of teaching girls they should cover themselves up, we should be teaching boys that we’re not just sex objects that you can look at and derive pleasure,” said Finlayson.

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