(WOMENSENEWS)–While celebrity-influenced media often celebrates women who flaunt their body in revealing clothing, high school authorities want to prevent this type of dressing in the classroom. Year after year, dress codes are put in place to get girls to cover up.
“No walking around [school] half naked,” said Phoebe Eligon-Jones, the gateway coordinator at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, N.Y. “If a girl comes in half naked, it’s natural for boys to turn and look.”
Many female students find that view offensive. They see high school dress codes as singling them out and promoting the notion that a woman’s appearance is solely a distraction for males.
Male and female students from three different schools in Indiana–Ben Davis High School, Crown Point High School and Lake Central High School–said girls are more likely to be scrutinized for the outfits they wear.
“Girls are more affected by dress code because boys, if they wear short shorts, everyone would just think of them as weird. It’s not that big of a deal,” said Emmanda McKenzie, a junior at Lake Central. “It’s a bigger deal [for girls] because they have things to show, I guess, that people think aren’t appropriate for school.”
Yet, Eligon-Jones points out that the boys are also penalized if they don’t follow a specific dress code, which prevents them from wearing hats, do-rags and shirts with derogatory material. She also said a dress code is necessary to advise pupils how to carry themselves after they graduate.
“It teaches students how to dress for the next level,” she said. “I don’t think students at this age realize how important first impressions are.”
Almost 60 percent of schools enforce a strict dress code around the country, according to the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics based in Washington, D.C. Requirements, however, vary from school to school.
No Spaghetti Straps, Very Short Skirts
The Ben Davis High School website says girls can’t wear spaghetti straps; shorts and skirts need to pass the middle of the thigh. Emily Rasmussen, a junior at the school, understands the purpose of a dress code, but feels the rules are too extreme.
“[O]bviously you don’t want people showing up to school in bikinis or anything,” she said. “But I think there are some things that could just be a little more relaxed about them. Like you can’t have shirts that show your shoulders, really? My shoulders are seductive?”
One student from Lake Central, Megan Barenie, recalls being reprimanded during her freshman year for clothes she felt weren’t even provocative.
“One day I was wearing tights and I had a skirt on, and everything was covered. But my teacher called me out, so ever since then, I’ve always been scared to be in risk of getting detention,” the senior said.
Enforcement and punishment also depend on the school. At Benjamin N. Cardozo, a scolded student will either be given a T-shirt to put on, be sent home to change or wait for a parent to bring them another outfit. The process is similar at Lake Central where the principal, Sean Begley, also believes strongly in the dress code.
“It’s important to consider school your job, in a way, and it’s important that you want to look [and] dress appropriate,” he said. “We are trying to help students understand that if you dress [inappropriately] to a job interview the chances are that you’re not getting the job.”
Jean Kilbourne, co-author of 2009’s “So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids,” agrees with the idea of dressing a certain way for school and preparing students for the “real world.” However, dress codes aren’t regularly framed in such a context. Instead, she said, they are presented in a way that shames the females.
“They send the message that there’s a problem with girls,” she said. “It’s basically telling girls that they are sluts and it is telling boys that they can’t control themselves.”
Ruthann Robson, a longtime professor at the CUNY School of Law and author of “Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality and Democracy,” published in 2013, agreed.
“It’s telling women and girls that it’s your responsibility to control boys and men and their presumed aggressiveness,” she said. “And it’s presuming that one, all boys are heterosexual, and two, all boys are aggressive and it’s kind of giving them permission to be aggressive.”
Amid all this, parents, educators and students must contend with the consequences of the over sexualization and objectification of women, which can “undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust,” according to a 2007 study conducted by the American Psychological Association. The authors found it can also lead to a “lower self-esteem, negative mood and depressive symptoms” as well as “diminished sexual health.”
Some female teens are fighting their school dress codes.
In June, several students from the South Orange-Maplewood school district in New Jersey started a social media campaign using the hashtag, “IAmMoreThanADistraction.” In September, according to news reports, approximately 100 students from Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, walked out of class to demonstrate against the strict dress code at their homecoming dance which forbid several female students from entering.
“It’s not our responsibility to make sure boys aren’t distracted,” said Estella Fox, a senior at Westside High School in Omaha, Neb. “They should be taught that women aren’t just objects and they have the right to dress how they want.”
Additional reporting from Lia Hagen and Ruth Chen.