Gendered School Dress Codes Get an F. Here’s What Schools Should Do Instead

Strict, gendered dress codes do not reduce sexual harassment and assault against girls and young women. Instead, let students have autonomy over their appearance.

A school official digitally raised dozens of girls’ necklines after deeming the students’ tops—which consisted mostly of v-neck T-shirts—immodest. (News4JAX — YouTube)

With so many schools disciplining girls for their clothing—and now a Florida high school editing out images of cleavage in its yearbook—it’s clear that administrators are stuck in an unhelpful and even harmful mindset and need a fresh perspective.

I’ve been tracking slut-shaming in schools for 25 years. I’m not against school dress codes, and I don’t believe that students should be permitted to wear anything they want. But something is seriously wrong when it’s become commonplace to hear about a 5-year-old in Minnesota, wearing a sundress, being told by the school nurse to “cover her body,” and a 16-year-old in Nevada who wore a shirt exposing her shoulders, and whose teacher called two police officers to escort her to the school office, where she was forced to sit and miss class.

And last month, the news broke that Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County, Florida, doctored at least 80 photos of girls in the school yearbook; none of the photos of boys were altered, including one with boys on the swim team wearing Speedo bathing suits.

During the 2015–16 school year, 53 percent of public schools enforced a strict dress code, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and girls of color are targeted most often—The National Women’s Law Center has demonstrated that schools are more likely to remove Black girls than white girls from the classroom because of their clothing.

Many administrators appear to genuinely believe that girls’ bodies are a distraction in the classroom. Maybe they recognize this is sexist or racist thinking and are embarrassed to hold onto such an outdated approach. It’s clear too many educators conclude they have no choice but to discipline girls for violating the “fingertip rule” (when their skirt or shorts are shorter than finger-tip length with arms extended straight down their sides) or wearing leggings with a cropped top.

If it’s true that a girl’s body can pose a distraction to the learning of other students, calling her out for her clothing is the worst possible solution. In fact, there is not a single positive outcome.

More attention, rather than less, becomes focused on her body—the opposite of the intended goal. Having adults as well as students scrutinize her body will likely make her feel anxious, insecure, and ashamed. She is told she is a sexualized person before she may even have developed an identity as someone with sexual feelings and desires. And girls are learners too; worrying about violating the dress code is a distraction to their own learning, and being kicked out of the classroom obviously makes learning impossible.

Many educators justify disciplining girls with the claim that girls need to learn to dress in a manner that does not invite sexual harassment or assault. But perpetrators harass and assault regardless of the clothing of the victim. And if school dress codes are designed to reduce rates of harassment and assault in society at large, they clearly are a massive failure. 81 percent of US women have been sexually harassed, and 21 percent of U.S. women have been sexually assaulted.

School dress codes are not the solution. Rather, they are the problem. They normalize the belief that if a woman wears revealing clothing, she is “asking for it.” A better solution is to create a dress code that does not reinforce gendered or racialized stereotypes—such as the one devised by Evanston Township High School in Illinois after student Lilly Bond stirred a student protest against her middle school’s former anti-leggings rule.

If you are a teacher or administrator, you may be surprised to hear that many girls in tight leggings or short shorts are not seeking sexual attention at all. Most often, they choose items they find physically comfortable against their skin and that are available in stores and online.

Some are seeking sexual attention; they want to be seen as sexy. Instead of forcing them to cover up or go home, or calling over police officers, show curiosity and empathy—don’t you want to know why and how some of your students have come to believe that presenting a sexualized body is the preferred way to get recognition? And if you believe this outlook is unhealthy, wouldn’t it be better to explore ways to guide the student toward a healthier sense of self?

Strict, gendered dress codes teach that someone with power can, should and will control the choices girls may make about their bodies and sexuality. The best way to reduce sexual harassment and assault is to do the opposite: Let girls have autonomy over their appearance, and demonstrate that no one should ever get to sexualize anyone else without their consent.

Up next:


Leora Tanenbaum coined the term "slut-bashing"—the precursor to the term "slut-shaming"—in 1999. In her most recent project, she chronicles dress-coding on Instagram. Her latest book, I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, offers a fresh perspective on the phenomenon of teenage girls and young women labeling each other "sluts" and "hos." It has been named one of 11 "groundbreaking books about women making history." Currently the editor-in-chief of Catalyst, Tanenbaum lives in New York City.