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



    1. I am a 14 year old girls, i want to be able to wear what i love i want to be able to wear the clothes that make me comfortable. Why can people just see me for who i am i shouldn’t have to cover up every strap and i shouldn’t have to be stopped infront of everyone just to be told to cover my strap. Let me wear what makes me who i am! Let us wear what makes you, YOU!!

    2. Mackenzie says:

      I am fifteen years old. I recently was sent to the office for wearing a shirt that had 3 inch sleeves and came up to my collar bones. It was eighty degrees out and i was in trouble. They later made an announcement that day about enforcing dress codes. Schools say girls cant wear leggings, yoga pants, tank tops, etc. because boys get distracted. I have never seen nor heard of a male going to the office complaining that a female is distracting him. So, where are the principals getting this reason from. One person, male instructors. They must be complaining about getting distracted from female students. Im sorry, if my legs or shoulders are distracting male instructors, then we have a much bigger problem. Schools are supposed to be a safe environment. If the instructors are getting distracted by girls, I dont feel safe. This is a much bigger issue.

      • yes it is i got blamed for wearing a strap shirt to school and i got in big troble the dress codes are so stupid

    3. Lilli H says:

      Ok, everybody says that they just ‘want to feel comfortable in what they wear.’ So your telling me that you would be okay with an older guy looking at you but it shouldn’t matter because you feel comfortable in it. Leggings aren’t jeans and most of the time you can see your panty line and your butts hanging out. Pretty sure jeans don’t do that. I think girls should respect their body. If your going to wear something that you feel comfortable in and it looks bad, like wearing leggings with your butt sticking out and wearing tank tops with your bra sticking out, you’re going to attract the wrong guys and to be honest the good guys will probably think your a slut and not want you. Girls need to respect their bodies and think, is this what I would want to wear around my dad and grandfather? So next time you go out, think of that. Now on dress code, even if you don’t like it, you still have to respect it! Schools don’t want you to look like a slut in front of everybody. They are trying to protect you! Now on some dress code, like not being able to wear a no sleeves dress, which I would say they don’t want your bra sticking out, even if you don’t think it’s right, you still have to respect it. Do you really think a grown man with kids would want to see you if you dress bad with their kids?

      • Anti-Lilli H. says:

        Wow. You are so incorrect on so many levels. You are slut-shaming fifteen-year-olds. Congrats.

        (You might want to stop that, btw, because shaming girls and women who wear revealing clothes manifests into victim-blaming language like, “she wants to get raped” “she’s provoking men dressed like” and “she asked for it.”

        Listen, in terms of leggings:

        “Not being able to wear leggings because it’s ‘too distracting for boys’ is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do.
        ”And if boys are really spending too much time staring at leggings (or legs) instead of at the chalkboard, then that’s a behavior that boys should learn to regulate before they’re accused of sexual harassment once they graduate to the workforce.
        But really, the conclusion made by this discussion isn’t important. Women – even young women – still have the autonomy or should have the autonomy to choose what they wear. Modesty is a false “virtue”. Teach men and boys (and women, too) to not objectify others. That will do a whole lot more than telling women to stop wearing leggings.
        But sweeping generalizations about how to modestly wear leggings is rooted in the sexist belief that women are wholly responsible for men’s actions and “tempting them to sin”

        In terms of dress code:
        Kids have to learn that in specific situations, you are expected to dress and conduct yourself in a particular way.

        What I take issue with is that it is never presented like that. It is always presented as “Don’t do this, don’t do that”, which leaves it up to interpretation in a variety of ways. If your belief is that you need to teach children this, then do so. We don’t teach fractions by telling them how not to do decimals. We don’t teach reading by telling them how not to stare at the white parts of the page. We do it by teaching them what to do.
        “Dress code continues to be a concern, specifically with our female students.” There is talk about clothes interfering with establishing and maintaining a “learning environment”— prompting the question of whose “learning environment” is being prioritized and at whose expense. Scripted morning announcements at my daughter’s school include daily reminders, “to the young ladies,” about the importance of wearing appropriate attire.

        Hope that clears up the ridiculousness.

      • Lilli H,

        Maybe you should stop telling teenage girls what looks “bad” since that is an pinion, and an opinion that none of these girls asked you to share. I’ve seen plenty of people look “bad” in jeans, so I’m not sure why you want to say those are the answer.

        And “guys will think you’re a slut and not want you” <– wtf is this shit? Girls don't need to dress to "be wanted" by anyone, what a disgusting attitude. And both men and women internet trolling and slut shaming is the problem, not the girls you're being nasty to.

      • Us girls have a right wear what we want. And dress codes are really dumb 😐 Dress codes practically tell a girl, “Hey, you look like a slut in a tank top and yoga pants.” I wear yoga pants all of the time, I’m comfortable in yoga pants, I’m myself in yoga pants. I feel like people restricting what girls can and cannot wear gives us a lack of confidence. And that’s an issue, a lot of girls have lack of confidence today and then when you say that we are violating dress codes it makes us think, “oh, I really AM a slut.” Like is that something you want to go through a girls mind when she gets sent to the office for violating dress codes? NO! And the distracting guys part of this, ok maybe when you wear shorts so short and your butt hangs out, then contour out butt, then wear a really small strapless crop top. Then yea that a problem. Not really cause a girl isn’t going to wake up in the morning and be like, “ooh, imma dress like a slut and distract boys today.” That’s not how it works. Maybe before making dress codes, interview boys and girl from ages 12 to 18 and see their opinions. And if you think that our clothes are distracting, that came from an adults head, not a teens. Screw off because I want to wear what I want to wear

    4. Madison Yahn says:

      I’m always having to measure the length of my shorts and I think it’s unfair because all of the dress codes are aimed towards girls.It should not be a girls fault if a boy can’t control himself by looking at her.If teachers have a right to give a girl a dress code violation for a simple hole in her jeans why can’t they give a boy a dress code for having their shorts all ripped up.I go to Seigal Middle School and I think that all of the girls should stand up so that we can wear what we want when we want just like the boys

      • Piper Coe says:

        You are so right its not fair that boys can ware like what ever they want but we have to live by a dress code what ever happened to equal treatment everyday before I head to school I measure all the things that I am wearing to make shear I am not violating any of the dress codes even my own dad is judgy about what I want
        To ware why cant we just be treated like boys they can do ware what ever they want the never get dress coded for jack

    5. Hhepler says:

      My 15-year old keeps wearing her bikini backward which effectively turns it into a thong. I work very hard not to police or body shame her but it is obviously inappropriate for her to walk down the beach like this. Not sure how to empower this behavior! Suggestions?

    6. Scarlett says:

      At my school we don’t have ridiculous dress code rules, the standard no short shorts, tank tops etc. I have a friend though who really enjoys cutting and resewing her clothes and stuff and one day, she wore leggings that had like tied holes cut in them, they looked really cool, and they went up to just above her knee. Then during passing time she got called to the principles office and had to call her mom to bring her a change of pants because she was revealing too much skin with the holes. Now her mom works during the day and the time it took her to leave work, go home, and come to school took around an hour. My friend wasn’t allowed to go to class of course, so she had to skip that class and take more time out of her schedule to go see that teacher and get her classwork. I mean come on people really?

      Also during summer gym, the dress code was a lot more relaxed, such as we were allowed to wear tank tops as long as you can’t see your bra but the fingertips rule was still intact for shorts. One day when it was like 97 degrees another friend and I were wearing a thick non see through tank top with a see throughish type tank top on top of that, then these boys come running by without their shirts on and we ended having a conversation about how amazing it would be to just be able to run in our sports bras because, honestly, we’d then be showing less skin than the boys.

      Now, I’m very conservative, I’ll wear jeans and a jacket in August, but what bothers me is that in gym class during school, the popular kids can get away with wear shorts that don’t even cover their butt, but the unpopular kids like my friends and I actually follow the rules and still get in trouble. Wtf is going on there?

      • Ok I got dress coded for wearing leggings and a cubs shirt that was like an inch shorter than what it had to be. I missed the guest speaker that day and they made my mom bring me new pants that were almost like leggings and they didn’t even care. It’s not fair boys wear whatever and we have to wear shorts and dresses and skirts 2 inches above the knee, no sweatpants or athletic shorts, and no crop tops. I want to be homeschooled…
        I hate this school… they sexualize girls so much…

    7. I am a 19 year old and I am having to explain to a 50+ year old man who I live with that instead of me having to wear something that coveres up to my neck (keep in mind thar he does not care how short my shorts are), he needs to control himself and stop being distracted. I pay rent and clean up after myself any time I make a mess, but as soon as I walk out of my room at 3:00 am to pee and my shirt is hanging off my shoulder, I am too slutty to be here and I need to “quit having my tits hanging out of my shirt all the time”.
      Now, another person I live with has a girlfriend who wears the exact same style clothing I wear and she isnfine to wear whatever she wants because she doesn’t have as big of a bust as I do. It frustrates me and it is sad that I have to actually research things about school dress codes to come up with a compromising dress code to keep at home. I do not want to be wearing turtle necks in 80+ degree weather and not to mention, I am broke and can not afford to even buy such things.

    8. So because I am from Germany I don’t have a dresscode but I’m still here because my family and big parts of the society think like this. I’m told not to wear ‘arousing’ clothing in order not to attract the male gender because it’s too dangerous. Well, in case they don’t know, rape or inappropiate touching can in NO WAY be justified by females exposing their bodies and the fact that the way I’d like to dress is always considered because of it makes me so angry.

    9. My 15-year old keeps wearing her bikini backward which effectively turns it into a thong. I work very hard not to police or body shame her but it is obviously inappropriate for her to walk down the beach like this. Not sure how to empower this behavior! Suggestions?

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