Search
  • Bay Area Uncovered

Why Dress Codes are Unhealthy

"It goes beyond the code itself"

All I remember from my sister starting middle school was her clothes and how much she paid attention to them. She had to make sure that her bottoms weren’t shorter than her fingertips with her arms at her side. So, whenever my sister and I went shopping for clothes at the mall, that was the only thing we would pay attention to. Before going to school, she would always ask my mom if her shorts looked okay, and it even got to the point where we practiced how to make our arms and hands look shorter so we could get away with a larger variety of shorts and skirts. As she entered high school, my sister slowly started to ignore the rules and decided to make her own guidelines in line with what she felt comfortable with, concluding that as long as her buttcheeks weren’t hanging out, it was fine.


"we practiced how to make our arms and hands look shorter so we could get away with a larger variety of shorts and skirts."

We were experiencing something that girls and women throughout the country go through on a daily basis. Although we were exempt from the sexualization of our bodies and being slut-shamed by the people at our school, many of our peers still must overcome these problems every day. Dress codes in America have a long history of objectifying women, favoring unreasonable rules for girls over potentially “distracting” male students and even adult men. Yikes.


"Dress codes in America have a long history of objectifying women, favoring unreasonable rules for girls over potentially “distracting” male students and even adult men."

Through our Student Experience Form, 100% of the accounts we collected about problems rooted from dress codes were from girls, a glaring display of how dress codes affect female students more. A student from a private high school wrote that “Girls always were subject to being dress coded a lot more than the guys were, even though the guys were breaking the dress code at the same rate the girls were.” She goes on to explain, “I was standing next to a guy who was wearing an out-of-dress-code hoodie and I ended up getting dress-coded for how tight my jeans were.” Sexism is rampant in the writing and implementation of school dress codes, as the words used are targeted towards girls and women. “Breasts” and “cleavage” were some of the most commonly banned visible body parts in dress codes, based on the 481 public schools surveyed by Amber Thomas, Kait Thomas, and Anna Houston for The Pudding in February of 2019. More than half of the clothing items that were prohibited were also marked towards girls. This included leggings, ripped jeans, and halter tops.


“Girls always were subject to being dress coded a lot more than the guys were, even though the guys were breaking the dress code at the same rate the girls were.”


According to the same survey, the words “distracting” and “disruptive” appeared in 76% of dress codes, suggesting that the exposure of certain body parts, such as the midriff, interferes with learning. This sends the message to girls and women that their bodies are nothing but sexual objects and that they are responsible for the way others, especially adult males, perceive them inappropriately. A student from a public high school told us their gym teacher gives extra credit if students wear revealing swimsuits, and that “Teachers and students often degrade girls—shaming them on clothing choices and stating [that] they appear ‘loose.'" This is a blatant example of an adult sexualizing a girl or woman’s body, and using the highly competitive and academically driven culture of the Bay Area to manipulate students into feeding the adult’s sexual thoughts.


"A student from a public high school told us their gym teacher gives extra credit if students wear revealing swimsuits, and that 'Teachers and students often degrade girls—shaming them on clothing choices and stating [that] they appear ‘loose.’”

The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls states that “Sexualization occurs when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Teaching girls that their body parts are inherently bad or important to others implies that how her body looks should be of extreme importance to her. This unhealthy way of thinking is known to lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and eating disorders, according to The Nation.


"Teaching girls that their body parts are inherently bad or important to others implies that how her body looks should be of extreme importance to her."

Dress codes are incredibly subjective, and the person in power—in this case, the administration—can control what is deemed “right” or “wrong” based on their own opinions. Often, there is no hard, definite rule about what is or isn’t allowed in the dress code. Setting the administration’s opinion on such a high pedestal allows discrimination to flourish within dress codes.


“I was in no violation of our dress code when my teacher called me out in front of the entire class for my attire. She used derogatory terms to describe me and my outfit including the word ‘whore’"

Teachers can abuse the power they have and wrongfully accuse people of breaking the code. Then, they use it as an excuse to berate students. “I was in no violation of our dress code when my teacher called me out in front of the entire class for my attire. She used derogatory terms to describe me and my outfit including the word ‘whore’,” a public high school student wrote. The student told her experience to the principal, but no action was taken. “All I asked was for my principal to at least speak to my teacher about the way she handled the situation. Not only did she take time out of class to humiliate me in front of everyone, but the words she used were very hurtful and disrespectful. My principal took no action and did not even acknowledge my complaint...This continued to happen throughout the year.” Many school administrations are unwilling to address the harm they are causing with inequitable dress codes, and nothing is being done to stop this unfair treatment.


"Not only did she take time out of class to humiliate me in front of everyone, but the words she used were very hurtful and disrespectful. My principal took no action and did not even acknowledge my complaint"

In the testimonies we collected from Bay Area students, the problem with dress codes was primarily gender discrimination. However, many dress codes across the nation are discriminatory towards certain minority groups.

For example, according to The Pudding, words such as “clean” and “neat” are used to single out African-American students because of their natural hair. Black students are often told that the way their hair simply grows out of their head is inappropriate. Young girls have been suspended from their schools for wearing their naturally curly hair because it was deemed “unkept” and “looking like it hadn’t been brushed for days” by the school administration, when in fact, it was just hair that wasn’t slick and straight. Or blonde, maybe.


"Black students are often told that the way their hair simply grows out of their head is inappropriate. Young girls have been suspended from their schools for wearing their naturally curly hair because it was deemed 'unkept' and 'looking like it hadn’t been brushed for days'”

Many Bay Area students have said that they wish there was “more education about slut-shaming” and “forums for students who have faced discrimination...so that [schools] can hear about these problems and address them.” It’s imperative for administrations to be on the same side as their students, and they must understand and address the discrimination that happens on a daily basis due to unreasonable dress codes. Student handbooks should be reworded so that all students are protected from discrimination, whether it be from their peers or staff members. We must come together to put pressure on school administrations in the Bay Area for real, lasting change. At Bay Area Uncovered, our first step is to compile reports to bring to district and county boards. If you’ve had a discriminatory experience or an encounter that could be bettered, please submit it to our Student Experience Form at tinyurl.com/bayareauncovered or reach out via the Contact page of our website.

Written by Elizabeth Cheng, Bay Area Uncovered Staff Writer


Works Cited


Allen, Maya. “The Messed-Up Reason This Girl Got Suspended for Wearing Her Natural Hair.” Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan, 9 Oct. 2017, <www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/news/a53919/people-around-the-world-are-standing-up-for-natural-hair-with-the-support-the-puff-movement/>


Cecilia D’Anastasio, StudentNation. “Girls Speak Out Against Sexist School Dress Codes.” The Nation, 29 June 2015, <www.thenation.com/article/archive/girls-speak-out-against-sexist-school-dress-codes/>


“Girl Wearing Short Jean Shorts.” Quora, Quora, 2018, www.quora.com/Is-it-normal-to-wear-shorts-in-high-school.

Herbst, Sophia. “Dress Coded: An Education on (Unnecessary) Sexualization.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/dress-coded-an-education-_b_5342040.

Morgan, Jessica. “Woman with Afro Hair.” Bazaar, Bazaar, 2019, <www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/beauty/hair/g27607521/best-afro-hair-salons-london/>


Thomas, Amber. “The Sexualized Messages Dress Codes Are Sending to Students.” The Pudding, Feb. 2019, <pudding.cool/2019/02/dress-code-sexualization/>




2,336 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All