School Dress Codes and the Sexual Objectification of Girls

The transition from elementary school to middle school is notoriously difficult. Suddenly, ten and eleven-year-olds are expected to remember a changing class schedule, deal with massive increases in workload, and navigate a complex and often overtly hostile social landscape.

By the end of my first day of sixth grade, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. Fortunately, my last class was English, where I happily sank into the familiar comfort of a book. However, I was only a few pages in when I was interrupted by my teacher tapping me on the shoulder. “You need to go to the office,” she said and handed me a hall pass. As I walked to the door, utterly bewildered, the other sixth graders made the obligatory calls of “ooooh you’re in troubleeee”. On the way to the principal’s office, I wracked my brain for possible crimes, but I came up empty. It was my first day; what could I possibly have done?

Apparently, my crime was my tank top. I had violated dress code by wearing a shirt with straps less than three fingers in width. I was made to change into a mustard yellow shirt with ‘LOANER’ written across the chest in Sharpie, and then sent to the school guidance counselor’s office, where I was advised that my outfit was distracting and inappropriate. By the time I went back to class, the period was almost over. I went home and stared at myself in the mirror, feeling confused and ashamed.

Unfortunately, experiences like mine are extremely common. Across the country, young girls are frequently sent home from school, banned from dances, made to endure humiliating “inspections”, given detention, and even suspended for dress code violations. Many schools say they enforce a strict dress code in order to ensure a learning environment that is “distraction-free”. But what do these policies communicate to young women about their bodies?

The sexual objectification of women is rampant, from advertisements that depict women as little more than props used to sell a product, to the street harassment that many women experience on a daily basis. Simply put, sexual objectification describes a view under which people are seen as instruments of sexual pleasure, not as human begins with agency. This leads to self-objectification, wherein women who have been socialized in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies them internalize those messages, and come to see themselves as objects rather than subjects.

The impact of the pervasive sexual objectification of women has been studied extensively by psychologists, and the effects are chilling. Sexual objectification has been consistently linked to disordered eating, decreased self-esteem, depression, and sexual dysfunction in women. Studies have also shown that sexual objectification leads men to view women as less competent and less deserving of equality and respect.

Experts worry that dress code policies that single out and humiliate girls for wearing “revealing” clothing perpetuate sexual objectification and tell young women that their access to learning is less important than that of their male peers. When girls are asked to leave class because their bodies might be distracting, the clear message is their education is less valuable than the education of the boys who could lose focus because of an exposed bra strap.

Only a few weeks after my first dress code violation, I was reprimanded again for wearing a t-shirt that exposed a small amount of my stomach when my arms were raised fully above my head, which was discovered when I was stopped in the hallway by the vice principal for a “dress code inspection”. Once again, I was made to wear an ugly shirt, and this time I also received lunchtime detention. I became increasingly anxious and self-conscious and started to select my clothing by trying to imagine how other people might react instead of based on my personal preferences.

When we tell young girls that their shoulders and stomachs and legs and arms are inappropriate, distracting, and even offensive, we are teaching them that their bodies are  made to be evaluated by others. At eleven years old, I hadn’t previously thought much about my arms; they were useful for climbing trees and reaching up to pat horses, but it had never occurred to me that they were “provocative”. I didn’t understand why I was being blamed for whatever bad behavior my arms might potentially provoke. However, through repeated feedback, I came to understand that my body was something to be ashamed of.

There are other considerations in the dress code debate beyond the psychological impact these policies may have on young girls. Title IX, a landmark civil right enacted in 1972, guarantees equal access to education and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. Some have argued that dress code regulations which disproportionately target female students create a hostile learning environment for them, and so constitute a violation of their rights under Title IX.

As long as society normalizes the sexualization of women’s bodies, it seems unlikely that we will see meaningful changes in these dress code policies. Ultimately, the idea that women and even very young girls are responsible for the way men behave is an ancient and deeply ingrained cultural tenet. However, more and more girls are fighting back and refusing to accept these standards. A group of middle school girls in New Jersey created the hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction, and students across the country have been involved in walkouts and demonstrations against dress code policies, which they see as sexist and harmful.

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project. **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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