The One Good Thing About School Dress Codes

Unnecessarily gendered, slut-shaming dress code regulations are galvanizing a generation of activists like Riley O’Keefe.

Riley O’Keefe, a junior at Bartram Trail. (Courtesy)

It’s not that they reduce sexual harassment and assault against girls and young women. They don’t.

It’s not that they enable teachers and administrators to treat students with respect. They don’t.

School dress codes are agents of slut-shaming, driven by the belief that girls who don’t cover up are deviant and distracting.

The one exciting upside is that students are so disgusted and outraged by these sexist, racist regulations that they are galvanized. From Lilly Bond, who protested her Illinois middle school’s prohibition of leggings, to Lacey Henry, who called out her North Carolina high school for forcing girls to wear dresses rather than pants to their graduation ceremony, to Jilly Towson, who shared with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History what it feels like to be dress-coded and how it interferes with learning, students are creating petitions, raising awareness—and getting dress codes changed once and for all.

Florida high school junior Riley O’Keefe has been a vocal critic of her Florida school district’s attitudes about girls and women—exemplified not only by its gendered dress code, but also by her school’s doctoring of girls’ yearbook images by editing out their cleavage. The U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into whether or not the district discriminates against girls, and the ACLU intervened, in large part due to O’Keefe’s activism.

I asked Riley, 16, about her experiences at Bartram Trail High School.

Leora Tanenbaum: What sparked you to speak out against sexist dress codes?

Riley O’Keefe: On March 26, 2021, it started out as a normal day. But when we got to school, girls were getting dress-coded left and right. Administrators and teachers were standing outside the front door to the ninth grade center, and when girls tried to enter, they made them raise their arms and take off their jackets to see what they were wearing underneath. Between 30 and 40 girls were dress-coded, and not a single boy was dress-coded.

A lot of girls wore tank tops underneath zipped-up jackets or hoodies and the teachers were telling girls to take off their jackets to see what was underneath. A math teacher told one girl to take off her jacket, which she did not want to do because she was wearing a sports bra. But he made her take it off and change out of it. And that teacher still works at the school.

I was frustrated and angry because some of my friends had to leave class for half a period, missing a ton of learning. And then on the intercom at the end of the day, in seventh period, girls had to go back to the front office to pick up the clothing that had been taken from them, so they missed even more learning. The students who were dress-coded were so embarrassed.

I thought to myself, “How is this okay?” So that night, I channeled all that emotion into a petition that I wrote. And then around 500 people signed it within the next day or two, which I did not expect. It was amazing. It felt like, ‘Wow, we could maybe actually do something about this.’ And now we have over 7,000 signatures.

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)

Tanenbaum: How did other students react?

O’Keefe: A bunch of students protested by wearing certain clothes. Guys came to school wearing short skirts and wigs as an act of solidarity, because the reason girls were dress-coded was that supposedly their clothes were “distracting.” So the guys decided to wear clothes that were distracting to prove a point. One guy wore a hot pink wig and a speedo bathing suit over his shorts, and it was very tight, and he had his flannel shirt tied up like a bra. And he did not get dress-coded. His teacher even complimented his wig.

But a lot of students were too scared to protest. They were scared that if they said anything, it could be used against them. They couldn’t stand up for themselves because of the power that the school has over their lives.

Between 30 and 40 girls were dress-coded, and not a single boy was dress-coded. I thought to myself, “How is this okay?”

Tanenbaum: And then the school doctored girls’ yearbook photos without consent.

O’Keefe: The day my school released the yearbooks, I went to go pick mine up. And the first thing people do when they get their yearbook is flip to the page with their photo. So I find my photo, and I’m like, “That does not look right.” I had the real photo on my phone, so I looked it up, and that is when I realized that the school had put a black box over my chest. And then I flipped through and saw that lots of girls’ photos had a black box over their chests, too. And I was really blown away. There was nothing wrong with my photo. There was nothing wrong with anyone’s photo.

My initial reaction was that I was just kind of baffled. But then I realized that the administration had been looking at my photo, and what they saw was my chest. It was concerning to me that they were basically viewing us just as bodies that were distracting.

When they put those black boxes over our chests in the yearbook, it became clear that the dress code was not really an issue with clothing. It was a problem with how the school district views women’s bodies and how the world views women’s bodies. They were sexualizing us even though we’re still children.

Tanenbaum: How did the ACLU get involved?

O’Keefe: I want you to know that before the ACLU came forward, we had been going to the school board to try to get the dress code changed. Someone else had reached out to the U.S. Department of Education and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, but things had not gained much steam. Then The New York Times and the Washington Post reached out to interview me, and that publicity made everything move faster.

The ACLU was very concerned about the disproportionate enforcement of the dress code against girls. Parents had reported that their sons and daughters would wear the same clothing to school, such as a tank top or running shorts, but only the girls would get dress-coded. The ACLU sent a letter to the St. Johns County School District informing them that they were violating Title IX and the U.S. Constitution. Then the Department of Education officially launched an investigation into whether the dress code and its enforcement caused gender discrimination against girls.  

After the Department of Education and ACLU got involved, the board started listening. They did change parts of the dress code. They removed language specifying some rules for girls and other rules for boys, and deleted language about prohibiting clothing that is “immodest, revealing, or distracting.” But I want you to know that they never cared until they were threatened and embarrassed by all the negative news coverage. And that even after that, the district has not taken actions that I feel are adequate.

For example, the district said they were going to put together a group to collaborate on revising the dress code. The group was supposed to consist of teachers, parents and students. But they never actually invited the parents and students. So the district never lived up to their word.

The dress code is a little bit better. Now, we can wear tank tops and shorts. But that was never the real problem to begin with, so the real problem is not solved. Teachers were still standing outside school at the beginning of the year scrutinizing girls’ clothing and issuing warnings. It intimidated a lot of girls. A local newspaper recently requested data on dress code violations issued since September, and 83 percent are still issued to girls.

Some people, including teachers and administrators, simply consider girls’ bodies to be threatening. I never heard anyone tell a boy that his shirt is too tight, his shorts too short, or that his muscles are showing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about girls’ clothing or our bodies. Negative comments are made about girls’ bodies or clothing all the time.

The administration had been looking at my photo, and what they saw was my chest. It was concerning to me that they were basically viewing us just as bodies that were distracting. They were sexualizing us even though we’re still children.

Tanenbaum: There is a lot of attention now focused on your school district because of your actions, Riley, which is fantastic. How do you feel about that?

O’Keefe: It’s really important for people to know that this fight is not over. Sure, we fixed the dress code a little bit. But the dress code and its enforcement are still not perfect. Girls are still not being treated as equals. When people act like everything is better now, they are being disrespectful to all of the girls who have been victimized by the district’s actions.

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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.