Is our Dress Code Sexist? Or are We?
The dress code is not sexist. On the contrary, the dress code - outlined in the 2019-2020 Henderson Student Handbook - is carefully written not to be sexist in any way shape or form. The problem with the dress code is not its actual contents, but the way it’s being enforced.
Tank tops, shirts that show “midriff or cleavage” and see-through tops are all banned for all students, “male and female.” However, pajamas, coats, scarves, slippers, untied shoelaces, chain link belts, spiked jewelry, and pants worn lower than “the top of the hips” are also all forbidden by the same page of dress code. And yet, when the dress codes slides come up on the second day of school PowerPoint, the left hand side reads “Boys:” and shows an image of (far too) low slung jeans with a spiked belt, while the right displays the letters A (abdomen), B (buttocks) and C (cleavage), all with a red slash over them. (This presentation is not accessible for students anywhere on the Henderson or WCASD website.)
The first issue there is the blatant gender division – alienating transgender students, disregarding non-binary students, and excluding anyone with a more adrogynous style. The more important problem, though, is how Dr. Crystal Dowdell, the administrator for the class of 2021 presented this information at the junior assembly. She said;
“Ladies, cover it up. The males in the facility don’t want to see it, and the faculty doesn’t want to see it.”
Roughly half the room started in complete disbelief. Are my shoulders so distracting that he can’t do his homework? Should my male teachers really be looking at anything below my collarbones? And should the administrative staff have more say over who can look at which parts of me than I, the occupant of my body, have?
I get dress coded walking down the hallway with a half inch of skin showing above the waistband of my jeans. I know a girl who was dress coded wearing a hoodie – because it was cropped. Teachers, always male, almost always who have never taught me, raise an eyebrow and tap their shoulders when my sweater shifts and my bra strap shows. When I was explaining to anyone who would listen about this article, more than one fellow student just smiled and said, “OK, so what were you wearing?”
And that is not the point.
The point is that I walked past three chain-link belts, two belt chains, a spiked belt, two spiked chokers, and about 40 untied shoes today, and not one teacher said a single word. Why would they? It’s a ridiculous thing to try to monitor if someone’s shoe is untied, because the danger or distraction it offers to the overall school environment is infinitesimal at best. So why are my shoulders more important than their chains?
The point is that, for anyone even slightly female presenting, the dress code is a conscious part of our day, in deciding if we can or can’t wear this or that. It impedes our comfort and our thought processes during the school day. It interrupts our classroom time to ask us to tug our hemlines up or down, to remind us to pull the shoulders of our tops up. And yet, they don’t say anything if we wear scarves to school. It’s not a problem for anyone that the boys’ soccer team had a pajama day before a game. Because, honestly, why would that ever be a problem? Even though it is against dress code. And isn’t that their whole justification for all the other reminders that we’re breaking those rules?
Anyone in our school that is female or female presenting must be constantly aware of this; none of our male classmates even think about the dress code in the same way. It could be that male clothes are designed to cover more of their bodies, or maybe my male classmates simply aren’t as systematically sexualized by the media and society as a whole. Regardless, it’s an inequality that’s blatantly apparent to anyone keeping an eye out. Everyone I know who presents feminine has been dress coded at least once, but I have never seen a guy pulled aside by a teacher in the same vaguely humiliating way.
This bias towards the feminine-presenting and more feminine styles of dress seems like it can only stem from a basis of sexualization of a feminine body, which, in a classroom setting, is beyond absurd. This blatant objectification interrupts our most basic right as students: to receive an equal education with equal opportunities. While there are instances in which some members of the student body take it too far, the cases mentioned above – being called out for simple, tiny conflicts with the dress code – are an example of how a certain portion of the student body is being treated unfairly for expressing the individuality both the student handbook and the discipline manual recognize and accept as part of students being growing human beings. Conduct, according to the Discipline Manual, that “deprives a student of individuals educational benefits,” or is “sufficiently persistent or pervasive that a reasonable person would fine it unreasonable interfering with performance in school,” (items 3 and 4 of the sexual harassment definition, under the page 35 Harassment Policy), and is, on some level, sexual in nature, is indisputably sexual harassment. While I make no claims that the dress code crosses that line, it certainly comes close, interfering with both classroom interactions and focused work time for many students.
The largest issue remains how it’s presented to us – that girls are required to cover up for their peers’ and teachers’ benefits. This implication is both which is both objectifying, in its assertion that bare shoulders or an exposed strip of abdomen could be attractive enough to be distracting, and demeaningly sexualizing.
Thus, the application of our dress code need to be rapidly modified. But equally importantly, administrative staff owes it to their student body as a whole to change both the way they educate us on what we can and cannot wear as well as changing the that information is presented. Because I for one am incredibly uncomfortable with the implication that by leaving my shoulder uncovered, I’m somehow inviting looks or attention from the “males in this facility.”