What are School Dress Codes Really Teaching Our Kids?

school dress code body shaming

In case you somehow missed last week’s news story about a yearbook picture scandal in Florida, let me catch you up: Bartram Trail High School, digitally edited the photos of 80 female students to cover up cleavage and shoulders because the photos in question violated the school district’s dress code. Apparently, the students were warned ahead of time that this could happen, and the decision to edit the pictures was made by the yearbook coordinator, who is also a teacher at the school. All of the affected students were female.

The St. John’s County School District’s dress code insists on clothing that is, “not immodest, revealing,  or  distracting.” Considering this story made international headlines, I wonder how “not distracting” is working out for them.

There are at least two big problems with dress code policies like these. First, there’s the emotional and psychological side-effects of body-shaming on teenage girls. Then there’s the issue of taking accountability for the actions of others and putting it squarely on the shoulders of the girls. If this sounds a lot like telling women to avoid short skirts so they don’t get raped that’s because it is exactly the same.

I’m sure the school thinks it’s protecting the students from themselves, and I know it’s not just boys who make sexist, derogatory, or predatory comments about girls’ attire. Girls do it to each other too. And what’s more, I don’t have teenage boys and I’m not a high school teacher. But despite my lack of experience, I suspect Bartram Trail isn’t giving their male students enough credit. But whether these young men can manage to decode The Catcher in the Rye while also being bombarded with visions of female midriff is beside the point.

Because it’s not about the boys.

School dress codes never were. Instead, it’s always been a fight over the right to police and control women’s bodies. Full stop.

Telling girls they can’t show shoulders, decolletage, or cleavage because it’s too distracting or revealing is the classic definition of body shaming and it’s the only thing schools are “teaching” students when they enforce dress codes like this one.

Dress codes are about sex, pure and simple. Despite being couched in terms like “appropriate” or “too revealing”, the core issue is the policing of sex and sexuality. And while I don’t dispute the fact that teenagers need some guidance and supervision in this area, school dress codes go about it all wrong because they teach girls that it’s up to them to control the actions of others. Dress codes fail to embrace what could be powerful teachable moments for all students by ensuring no one ever has to experience the consequences of his or her words or actions in a school environment, at least not when it comes to clothing and body-shaming.

So if you think the sex education curriculum is too “graphic” or “inappropriate” but you’re fine with the school dictating which tops are too revealing, you might want to rethink your priorities.

I have two daughters, aged 11 and 14, and one of them is particularly fond of crop tops and spaghetti straps. She feels absolutely no shame about her body, and I love that about her. I want to protect it all costs. But she’s not allowed to wear either of those items to school because they’re ‘not appropriate.’ I didn’t teach her this, the school did. I did not sexualize my 11-year old by telling her she can’t show her belly, the school did. The school taught her that showing too much skin is something to be ashamed of, that it’s better for everyone if her body is hidden, and that personal expression via wardrobe is forbidden, lest it make anyone else uncomfortable.

I’ll admit, there are times when I’ve cringed a little when my daughter comes downstairs in a crop top or short shorts. Not because of what she looks like or because I don’t approve, but because I want to protect her. I want to protect her from anyone who thinks her outfit choice is an invitation to comment on her body. I’m also afraid of what might happen if she doesn’t cover up because that’s what the women of my generation were raised to believe: that we’re responsible for what is said to us and what happens to us, especially if we’re wearing anything less than a turtleneck and long pants.

Some might consider it a leap to equate school dress codes with body-shaming but I do not. The sourced definition of body shaming on Wikipedia.com is: the act of deriding or mocking a person’s physical appearance…and can include, although is not limited to fat-shaming, shaming for thinness, height-shaming, shaming of hairiness (or lack thereof), of hair-color, body-shape, one’s muscularity (or lack thereof), shaming of looks (facial features), and in its broadest sense may even include shaming of tattoos and piercings or diseases that leave a physical mark such as psoriasis.

No matter the reason given, telling girls to cover up amounts to deriding their physical appearance. It is the classic definition of body-shaming. And if you disagree, I challenge you to do two things: First, consider what the real reason we ask girls to cover up is, because if it isn’t to avoid offending or making makes someone(s) uncomfortable, then what’s the reason?  And second, ask yourself why the Bartram High boy’s swim team was allowed to pose for the yearbook in their Speedos, which seems like a much more egregious dress code violation than low cut tops.

Speaking of egregious, let’s also consider that yearbooks at this school cost $100, which seems like a lot considering a prom dress was not included. And while any student who wanted a refund could get one, they had to return the book to be eligible. So that was the choice: be forever reminded of being body-shamed by your own school OR forego a treasured memento of your senior year.

We should all be concerned about the emotional and psychological side-effects of body-shaming on teenage girls. These can include severe emotional trauma and mental health disorders as well as self-injurious behaviours like cutting, binge-eating and the development of full-blown eating disorders. Children with a history of trauma, depression, self-harm, and low self-esteem are particularly vulnerable.

Is the school entirely responsible for this? Absolutely not. But school itself should represent safety, support, and acceptance. It should not be part of the problem.

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