Fear, Loathing, and Dress Codes in American Schools

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How Dress Codes Underestimate Student Intelligence and Discourage Diversity of Thought

By Jonathan Zimmerman – Professor of History of Education, Penn GSE, University of Pennsylvania

“Protecting” American Students

In 2014, a federal court upheld a California school’s decision to prohibit students from wearing clothes featuring the American flag on Cinco de Mayo. The school said that these images would spark anger and distraction among Latino students, who interpreted them as a slight upon their holiday and culture.

That same year, a high school in New York City barred students from wearing tank tops, halter tops, and low-cut blouses alongside sunglasses, hoodies, and headbands. Over 90 percent of students disciplined under the new policy were girls, whose skin-showing fashion choices supposedly distracted male students.

Are we seeing a pattern here? Most of my fellow liberals support — or at least accept — bans on potentially offensive messages in schools, even as we scoff at dress codes that prohibit revealing outfits. But we cannot have it both ways. All of these rules assume that students need to be insulated from certain images and ideas. And that patronizes our young people, all in the guise of protecting them.

Reigniting Debate During the Coronavirus

Start with the dress codes, which have come under renewed attack in the era of COVID-19. As many critics have noted, the same school districts that reject mask mandates — citing students’ “freedom of choice” — often impose draconian regulations around skirt length, necklines, and much more. The most common one is the much-mocked “fingertip rule,” requiring shorts, skirts, and dresses to be at or below the fingertips when a student is standing with arms at their sides.

In a clever riposte to Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on mask requirements, several school districts in Texas actually added masks to their dress codes. To protest school boards that allow students to opt out of mask mandates, meanwhile, other families announced that they would hereafter ignore all of the other rules around clothing.

“I can only assume that parents are now in a position to pick and choose the school policies to which their child is to be subject,” a Tennessee mother wrote on social media in a post that went viral. “I therefore intend to . . . send my daughter to school in spaghetti straps, leggings, cut-offs, and anything else she feels comfortable wearing to school.”

Meanwhile, female students have taken the lead in denouncing the dress codes themselves. After eighth-grader Sophia Trevino was pulled out of class on her first day of school in suburban Atlanta last month for wearing jeans with holes in them, she began a petition drive to change the rules. Each Friday, Sophia and her friends wear T-shirts bearing a stark accusation: “DRESS CODES ARE SEXIST RACIST CLASSIST.”

The Disproportionality of Dress Codes

Numerous studies have confirmed that dress codes bear disproportionately upon girls and young women, especially those of color. Black and Latina girls enter puberty earlier than whites on average, so they are more likely to be cited for violating rules around cleavage and skirt length. And the boys? They get to run around with their shirts off when it gets hot outside, and nobody thinks twice about it.

At the same time, ironically, the rules for girls are justified on the grounds that the boys will think they are too hot. Really? “Expecting the guys to keep their eyes off young ladies with shirts revealing their cleavage, short skirts, tight pants/leggings, shorty shorts, or tight shorts is like walking out into the rain and expecting not to get wet,” a principal at a Christian high school in Michigan explained in 2015, defending his school’s dress code. “The only way you can help young men not treat young ladies as sex objects is by telling the young ladies to cover up.”

But it is the dress codes — not the garments they ban — that actually sexualize young women, as Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford has observed. In recent years, for example, many schools have added yoga pants to their lists of tabooed clothing for female students. “Are yoga pants — the ubiquitous staple of soccer moms and their preadolescent daughters — really all that sexy?” asks Ford, in his recent book on the history of fashion. The question answers itself: of course not. But our schools imagine them as such. And, most of all, schools imagine students — especially boys — as powerless in the face of such allegedly lascivious sportswear.

Removing Diverse Thinking in Schools

But that is precisely the theory used to justify bans on controversial T-shirts in schools, too: young people cannot handle them. Offensive words and images will distract students, the story goes, inhibiting their learning and perhaps even provoking them to violence. We need to censor such messages, lest things get out of control.

I give our students more credit than that. Yes, some Latino students in California were offended by flag-laden clothing, which they saw as a snub of their Cinco de Mayo celebrations. So, they should raise their own voices, challenging such clothing and explaining why they view it as inappropriate. Simply banning it relieves them of that responsibility; indeed, it imagines them as too irresponsible — and too fragile — to handle it.

Likewise, I can readily understand why Latinos at an Oregon high school objected to a student who wore a shirt to school in 2018 bearing the words “Donald J. Trump Border Wall Construction Co.” and “The wall just got 10 feet taller.” Officials sent the student home, arguing that the T-shirt could have caused disruptions at a school that was one-third Latino. Never mind that the same school allowed people to wear T-shirts with anti-Trump messages, as the student in the “Border Wall” shirt pointed out. How is disciplining him for provoking his peers different from preventing a girl from wearing a halter top, lest she distracts the boys?

It is not. Ditto for T-shirts proclaiming that “Homosexuality is a sin,” which have been banned in several school districts across the country. The shirts supposedly pose a special danger to LGBT students, who are already at risk for suicide and other kinds of self-harm. Confronted by such hateful messages, they will suffer even more.

Again, I give them more credit than that. They already know that they live in a nation that does not accord full equality and humanity to sexual minorities. Banning the offensive shirt deprives them of the chance to explain their opposition to it. And, not incidentally, it also prevents people who wear the shirt from hearing — and, we might hope, learning from — these objections. 

Eliminating Dress Codes: A Modest Request

Yes, we can all imagine words and phrases that we would not allow a student to display on his body: the principal is an N-word, the math teacher in an F-word, and so on. But we can also imagine outfits that should be prohibited because they show too much of the body. Nobody would say it is okay to attend school naked from the waist down, for example.

But that is not what our students are demanding, of course. They are simply asking to wear their normal attire, which the dress codes have marked as a threat to order and decorum. Likewise, our rules around T-shirt messages presuppose that the wrong word or phrase will send the school into chaos. Wrong and wrong. Our kids can handle it. It is the grown-ups who cannot.  

For more articles by Jonathan Zimmerman, click here

JOnathan Zimmerman
Jonathan Zimmerman
Professor of History of Education, Penn GSE, University of Pennsylvania at Penn GSE

Jonathan Zimmerman is one of the foremost education historians working today. His work examines how education practices and policies have developed over time, and the myths that often cloud our understanding of teaching and learning. He has a particular interest in how political and social movements come to shape education. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, Zimmerman has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He currently works as a Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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