What Do Dress Codes Say About Girls’ Bodies?

a7fbbc987e2b972ddf57c11e6c6244fd“You’re not going out dressed like that!”

“What mother would let her child wear such a short skirt?”

Think about it: How often do we police girls’ bodies? Recent talk of school dress codes reveals that it happens an awful lot, and for some confused reasons.

After a New Jersey middle school banned strapless dresses from a school dance, more schools have been making headlines with various clothing bans and restrictions. Some of these bans focus on attire for dances while others target daily wear such as yoga pants and low-cut tops. All, however, focus only on girls’ clothing, and most of these restrictions are put in place to avoid “distracting” other students (i.e. the boys).

The concern for overly exposed young bodies may be well-intentioned. With society fetishizing girls at younger and younger ages, girls are instructed to self-objectify and see themselves as sexual objects, something to be looked at. A laundry list of problems can come from obsessing over one’s appearance: eating disorders, depression, low self-worth. Who wouldn’t want to spare her daughter from these struggles?

But these dress codes fall short of being legitimately helpful. What we fail to consider when enforcing restrictions on skirt-length and the tightness of pants is the girls themselves—not just their clothes, but their thoughts, emotions, budding sexuality and self-image.

Instead, these restrictions are executed with distracted boys in mind, casting girls as inherent sexual threats needing to be tamed. Dress restrictions in schools contribute to the very problem they aim to solve: the objectification of young girls. When you tell a girl what to wear (or force her to cover up with an oversized T-shirt), you control her body. When you control a girl’s body—even if it is ostensibly for her “own good”—you take away her agency. You tell her that her body is not her own.

When you deem a girl’s dress “inappropriate,” you’re also telling her, “Because your body may distract boys, your body is inappropriate. Cover it up.” You recontextualize her body; she now exists through the male gaze.

Says Soraya Chemaly in The Huffington Post,

What is a girl supposed to think in the morning when she wakes up and tries to decide what to wear to school? They aren’t idiots. The logical conclusion of the “distracting” issue is, “Will I turn someone on if I wear this?” Now who is doing the sexualizing? My daughters would never have thought these things without the help of their school.

Suddenly, offensive hypersexuality isn’t just something a girl sees in music videos or magazines: It’s embodied in her, and her dress-coded school reminds her of that every day.

So what about those distracted young boys? Where do they come in? By barring particular outfits from school, dress codes help boys identify and objectify “inappropriate” girls and women. Girls who violate dress codes are violating rules, and girls who violate rules are bad. Bad girls can be desirable and sexy, but they don’t necessarily deserve respect (even from other girls).

And where respect is absent, objectification is easy. In her guide to self-objectification, Caroline Heldman explains how sexually objectified women are dehumanized and viewed as “less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.” Those who are dehumanized may be mistreated and made to feel inadequate. And if poor self-image is linked with objectification, it isn’t hard to see that this cycle feeds itself: Those who are objectified by others are treated as less than human, and in understanding themselves as less than human may self-objectify.

Asking girls to cover up is a Band-Aid solution to far more socially ingrained problems such as general misogyny and rape culture. As long as a girl or woman is always sexualized, it won’t matter how much she covers up—she’ll still be faulted for her inappropriate behavior.

It’s unfair to expect a young girl to understand the full implications of her body—implications put in place by an all-too-often misogynistic society—and punish her for not knowing better. A girl needs empowerment, not more complications in her relationship with her body. Jada Pinkett Smith had the right idea when asked why she would “let” her daughter Willow shave her head:

This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power, or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, and her mind are her domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair … even little girls have the right to own themselves.

Photograph credited to Lindsay Kamikawa via SanClemente Patch

Comments

  1. I am a fourteen year old girl who has recently stopped going to school because I was getting fed up with the fact that they would force girls to cover everything and anything that was skin. Yes, you should at least have enough clothe on to cover your breasts and butt, but I believe that covering your shoulder because they show is crazy! It makes girls feel like they are not good enough to feel good about their bodies. I am glad that their are certain dress codes for schools. But seriously? Half of them are just plain crazy!

  2. i’m not saying to let girls wear what they want. i say that if they want to wear short shorts, they should be aloud, but not to the point where their ass is hanging out. if they wanna wear tank tops, let them, but don’t let them wear belly tops or bras to school, no one wants to see that.

    • ” if they wanna wear tank tops, let them, but don’t let them wear belly tops or bras to school, no one wants to see that.”
      I think the issue is that plenty of people “want to see that”. It is becoming a huge control issue between the school, the girls, and the boys. The school is making stricter dress codes, because they believe the boys can’t control their own thoughts and behavior. They believe that if the girls are more covered the boys will do better in school because they will be less “distracted”. This seems to be sending the girls mixed messages. One, that her body is bad and needs to be covered. The other is that she has control over others with what she wears.

      • It also preaches the belief that “boys will be boys.” That there’s nothing we can do to stop it, but by preventing girls from wearing “sexual” clothing; we can combat this. I hate this belief. I hate the phrase, “boys will be boys.”

      • Also to add to that, this is making the boys think that there thoughts cant be there own, i mean like im a girl and i understand that boys think some horrible things when other girls wear certain things, but seriously not all boys are like that! Us teens cant be expected to not do something that the last generation did, you gotta live what you preach.

      • Actually, I think that the point is that it shouldn’t matter who “wants to see that.” If a girl feels her best in those clothes it shouldn’t matter what other people think of it. If she’d rather feel good in her own skin and face the (screwed-up) possibility of uncomfortable comments, then more power to her; conformity might avoid trouble but it won’t make her free. So instead of raising your daughters to cover up and be ashamed of their bodies, raise them to be themselves and stand up for themselves when someone mistakenly believes he or she has the right to judge them based on something like choice of clothing.

    • I agree that no one wants to see a girl walking around in a bra but there is nothing wrong with belly tops. And lots of girls wear whatever they want to school but it’s mostly a certain kind of girl that gets forced to wear over sized sweats or t-shirt. And that’s been me for four years. I’m tired of it. I agree schools should have a certain kind of dress code, to avoid girls walking around the school naked. And a 2 inch hole above the knee is not naked, nor a dress above four inches of the knee.

  3. My friend was recently sent home from a school dance because her shorts were about a cm from her fingertips. Yet the principles let girls with skirts that cut off half way down their butts. My friend is very confused because she wears the same shorts most days at school.
    Spaghetti straps are banned at my school because shoulders apparently turn guys on. It’s not like I’m going to go up to a guy and be like “look at my shoulders! Aren’t the freckles sexy? Do they turn you on?” If guys do get turned on by a girls shoulders they must have problems controlling their

  4. School should be treated as a more or less workplace. If you wouldn’t want to wear it to work, don’t wear it at school. I’m twenty and agree that some rules are utterly ridiculous. Like skirts being just above the knee, or not being allowed to wear tank tops that cover bra straps but I still feel like dress codes need to be enforced. Workplaces all have dress codes and they have no wiggle room for exceptions. Schools should behave the dame. If you have a uniform, then wear it. If not, dress appropriately. You’re at school to learn, your clothes should reflect that too. And the reason why girls are governed more than boys is because boys’ clothing options are much simpler.

    • I 100% agree. My highschool had a strict dress code with boys having to wear ties and shave everyday, and girls had to be appropriately covered. Starting that behavior at 14 has definitely helped me when dressing for interview/work/other formal situations. I’m sure at this school tanktops /muscle shirts are probably not allowed for boys, and I’d love to see what they would say to any boy who comes to school wearing a crop top and yoga pants. It’s not just distracting when girls do it, and by telling them to cover up doesn’t mean we’re objectifying them.

      • I read an article recently where boys did just that to show how ridiculous the standards were. There were no rules or regulations on the boys but girls were restricted. This group of brave young men came to school wearing dresses, skirts, and shirts that were not allowed under the girls’ dress code. I think one even wore yoga pants and a tank top. They were by far the most distracting thing at school that day but the school could do nothing about it as the dress code only banned those things for girls and didn’t restrict what boys could wear. Double standard much?

        If you want it to be an intro to the work place and teaching them how to dress for interviews and such both sides should be restricted. That said though, why are we constantly trying to force our children to grow up so fast? When it comes time for their first interview they will come looking to their parents and other adults in life. If they botch am interview or two for jobs early on (ie in highschool or college) they will learn quickly.

  5. A random girl says:

    This is 100% correct. I admire your intellectual input on this subject. I do not know why we are not aloud to wear spaghetti straps, it won’t “turn” anyone “on”. Something so simple can be so drastic. I once wore a shirt that covered my shoulder but not my arms, I went to the principals office because there has been some “complaints” from the faculty that the way I am dressing is provocative, they said that “if I ever see you wearing inappropriate clothing again you will be expelled” . I clearly do not agree with these terms and policies of the “New” dress code. Nothing seems to exceed their expectations. No girl in the right mind wakes up and says: “Hey today I will dress provocatively so I can turn guys on, and show my shoulders and wear a see-through shirt to get their attention….”

  6. Sarah Todd says:

    This problem isn’t new either. Nearly a decade ago, when I was 14, my fellow female classmates were kept after school to be told that we couldn’t wear coloured bras under our white shirts. Because we would be distracting male pupils and staff. I’m sorry but shouldn’t men have the self-control not to stare at my tits. Why is it my job to police their behaviour with my outfits?

    • Someone says:

      Its called hormones. You’re trying to fight evolution with sociology.

      • Yes, boys are affected by hormones as teenagers, but they are not incapable of controlling themselves. We should be teaching boys to treat women with respect rather than teaching young girls that it is their fault boys don’t have the self-control to stop staring. This also, by extension, teaches boys that they do not have to be responsible for their actions; if a boy is caught staring at a girl and the girl gets sent to the principal’s office for her clothing, what does that teach the boy? That he can continue to objectify women (and ignore whatever lesson is being taught in class at the time) and he does not have to face any consequences—in fact, he learns that it is the girl’s fault anyway and he does not need to control himself. Boys should be taught to respect women rather than being taught to view them as mere sexual objects. It is also insulting to boys to insinuate that boys do not have that self-control. They are high schoolers not sex-driven wild animals.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      You are absolutely right! Stand up for equality!

  7. I have read through a lot of these comments and I have sympathy for the innocence behind wearing some things for comfort or style. However prior to comming here i went to another website, and was reading about over sexualised and sexually Exploited girls.Girls who wish that someone would have let them be little girls for a little bit longer. You know what……….as a mother of a young girl I’d rather hear you moan and groan that I was too conservative and that I didn’t let you express yourself enough and that I was too much of a prude or crazy or overbearing and mean, then spend one more second with my heart wrenching in sorrow from reading the comments coming from young girls. Eyes that have seen atrocities then I never want to imagine. So you go ahead and get angry that there still is a standard for some people that you don’t like.but the constant re occuring culprit,is that ,they all wish someone would have taught them self respect is gained through character, not through pair of heals, mini skirt and a tiny top. They wish someone told them NO ….Consistently.And taught them how to deal with it while it was easy. Perhaps reading some of the broken ones stories might make you button your blous one more notch for the sake keeping all our standards high!

    • As much as I agree, it is about educating your daughter. My mum pretty much always let me wear what I wanted, but there were clothes that she wouldn’t pay for. Making sure your daughter knows the nature of your issues with her attire is important, just saying no is just going to make her upset and sneak around behind your back to wear something just as, if not more revealing than what you told her not to wear. I saw it with friend after friend in high school and I’m sure you did too. When I ask my mum why she let me out of the house in some of the things I wore, she just says “I knew you could take care of yourself, and I figured there were worse ways for you to rebel. I’d rather know than have it happen behind my back.”

  8. I hate that women are objectified even at a young age. I had a beautiful shirt that made me feel like a princess but it had only one shoulder. I made the ‘mistake of wearing it to school one day, and was given an oversized T-shirt. It was a really bad T-shirt. :/ I think the sooner people realize that beauty and sexualization are not the same, the sooner the world will learn what real beauty is.

  9. Maybe there is a place for bringing uniforms back to schools? This would mean restrictions for everyone. There are too many variations of acceptable for young men and women.

  10. It does not matter what we do to cover ourselves, women will always be objectified. Think back to Victorian era. The sight of an ankle could cause a scandal. Now, with much more relaxed social structures, the only thing that I think matters is that a girl should cover herself from breast to well below her genitalia. I, for example have a very hourglass figure. If I were to wear bermuda shorts, I would look very out of proportion. In high school this was very disconcerting. There were no shorts to fit my 5’7″, long legged frame that fell into the dress code standard, except bermuda shorts.

    Now, I am 36 years old. I work as a technician, so our dress code is business casual (including jeans). Though, today, I received an e-mail from my supervisor about “complaints” that he had received, asking me to bend over in front of my mirror every morning, and if I saw cleavage that I was to change. However demeaning that was, it does not change that fact that if I wear a golf shirt with the buttons unbuttoned and bend over that you can see cleavage on me. I am a woman, I have breasts. So, off to Goodwill I go for shirts that button to the neck and crew neck tees so I don’t titillate or offend anyone. The battle never ends, and we can’t complain.

  11. Honestly as a girl I think we should be able to wear what we want and I don’t care if I get stared at… I’ve never had a problem wearing a mini skirt to school this year of crop tops nothing ever, now I know I’m 18 and that makes me an adult but I felt the same way last year and the one before. My father has always supported me with what I want to wear and I appreciate him for doing so and buying some of my more revealing clothes. Since no matter what I wear it will not change who I am or the morals I have. You can keep your virginity for as long as you like and still wear anything you find pretty or sexy. Oh and believe it or not I don’t get called a slut behind my back, and I do not wish to rebel against my parents or school since they have never tired to limit me which is a lot more then I can say for some of my friends.

  12. I dont understand why they r focused on the students for dress codes and what not bc some teachers are waring shirts that show their clevage or teachers the ware their pants to tight it shows the package or cameltoe like really it their is a dress code to be placed start with teachers and thenaybe students but in my point of view their should be any dress code besides ur privets being covered and same as belly but other then that it sgould be ok bc the way ppl dress shows the way they are it gives them confidence in their body and makes it so they r not shy. I know a lot of ppl that r so ashamed of their bodies and dont have self confadence bc in school they had to adby by the dress codes

  13. As a girl I support dress codes 100%. Dress codes are not put in place because we “distract boys”, they are put in place for school to be a place to learn rather than a place to show skin. I personally went to a uniform school and I think that worked quite well. School is first and foremost for learning and having everyone wearing the same thing I believe aided in that goal, whenever I put on my uniform I knew it was time to learn. Don’t forget there are restrictions on boys attire as well, though they seem less because boys clothing options are more limited. They can’t wear tank tops, they can’t wear hats, they can’t let there shorts hang down revealing their underwear; at least thats how it was at my school. With uniforms, or even just with a dress code, it teaches kids that the best and most appropriate way for them to stand out in school is with their minds. As a self-confident girl pursuing the male-dominant career of engineering, I have to say that learning my mind was my strongest tool brought me more self-confidence than a short, tight fitting dress ever could.

  14. I agree. Dress codes aren’t about making anyone feel crummy and they aren’t primarily about the fact that boys are distracted by beautiful girls. It’s all about keeping the focus on learning and off labels, fashion statements, and attention seeking behaviors. We just need to be smarter about how we deliver that message. We also need to take to heart messages about body image and help both girls and boys know that their worth goes far beyond clothing!

  15. I think they should have dress codes, but sometimes they are over board. Like you can’t show your shoulder that is just a bit to much. I mean of course don’t let us go to school with booty shorts and a midriff top. I’m in middle school my self and I would like to be able to wear a tank top. Also honestly why do we have to cover almost every inch of our body. Mostly boys are the ones causing this big issue they/their parents need to teach the boy to have a little respect. I agree sometimes girls are to flashy but most the time we just want to be comfortable.

  16. In my school were forbidden to wear see through clothes. Wow…. Also, my mom makes me late for the bus or makes me cry on the way to school because of my inappropriate wear. I tend not to wear dresses or skirts anymore not because of what boys say, but because of how my mom makes me feel. Even when she approves of the skirt, I never “wear it right” I’m not very provative at all. But after my mom tells me how she feels about my clothing and half the things in my closet I can’t go out it, I feel guilty for my big breasts and self consious about myself. I start blaming myself for the comments guys have made to me even when I’m just in jeans. I guess u just can’t hide a size d

  17. Jason Spiegelman says:

    I see a lot of contradiction in some of these posts. I’m sure they aren’t intentional, but I want to point them out. One poster said something like, “girls should be able to wear what they want, as long as it doesnt…” and that is when I stopped reading. So what you are really saying is that a girl canNOT wear whatever she wants, because you are imposing standards on what is or is not acceptable. You are saying she can wear what she wants, as long as it falls within your prescribed list of what is okay. So, in fact, she cannot wear whatever she wants. Now let me also be clear that I don’t disagree with that, and it should apply to boys as well, but the notion that we should let people do/wear whatever they want otherwise we are sexualizing or stifling them seems to me to miss the mark. I find contradictory the notion that one can be objectified by society after they have objectified themselves already. If one chooses to let their parts hang out for all the world to see, then they have clearly made a statement that this is how they want to be viewed. Turning around and telling them that they may NOT do so in certain certain circumstances is an attempt to return tact and class to those settings. Can that go too far? Of course it can! It is LUDICROUS to tell a girl that her bare shoulders are too sexual. IT is obnoxious to suggest that she must cocoon herself so that no skin is visible. But cmon, folks. Let’s strike a BALANCE!!! Now this article speaks almost exclusively about women, and that is what my comments have addressed. For balance, let me also say that guys walking around with their asses hanging out of their pants is equally as inappropriate and, to me, offensive. What is even sadder is that we even have to have this conversation in the first place. How friggin’ hard is it to dress appropriately!!??!!??

  18. Careful! I heard knees, ankles and wrists also turn guys on. So make sure you wear a hazmat suit to school.

  19. I actually agree with the fact that there should be some sort of dress code as long as the list doesn’t get too long. having general rules like covering up your breasts and other appropriate areas should be part of a schools ‘dress code’. my only problem with this is that girls come in all different shapes and sizes in high school. I, myself, was a little overweight in high school and even in middle school, and being a larger woman, I have larger breasts that I was constantly getting in trouble for wearing shirts that “were too revealing” because I had cleavage and other girls didn’t. I shouldn’t have had to make myself uncomfortable throughout middle school and high school by wearing clothes that covered me up entirely because of my genetics while other girls who weren’t as big in that area wear clothes with a much deeper neckline.

  20. At my school out skirts and shorts have to go past our fingertips and no tank tops at all. We cant even wear a tank with a see through sweater over top of it. I think it’s so stupid that we are seen as objects that have to please the guys at my school. That is exactly what they told us. That it is our responsibilty to make sure the boys will pay attention to the work and not us.

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