Dress codes promote discrimination of marginalized communities

Lindsay Macher

Cities across the country have been brought to national attention for enforcement of strict, unfair high school dress codes. Dress codes are inherently oppressive because they seek to regulate women’s bodies and discriminate against racially marginalized communities. Fed-up students have begun to fight these rules by posting flyers critical of the codes and by taking to social media to critique these rules’ inherent misogyny and racism. The hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction has inspired solidarity among schools nationwide in response to discriminatory dress codes.

At Grissom High School in Huntsville, a female student was reprimanded for wearing an oversized sweatshirt and leggings. Her mother posted a photo of her outfit on social media, criticizing the school’s sexist policy toward girls. The dress code at Grissom High School, and at many schools throughout the country, disproportionately penalize girls’ attire for being “distracting.” This reinforces two stigmatizing ideas about boys and masculinity: 1) that boys are unable to control themselves sexually and 2) that when boys internalize this idea and harass or assault girls, it’s the girl’s fault.

The idea of girls being “guilty” of distracting their male peers is unfair because it’s clear that these codes mostly affect girls (and make girls miss class, upholding the sexist idea that the education of women and girls matters less than men and boys). Also these dress codes reinforce the false notion that women are hypersexual seductresses whose bodies are for men’s gaze and objectification—portraying women as inherently tempting and frequently at fault for the downfall of “respectable” boys and men. This further objectifies the female body through the perpetuation of rape culture, establishing a system of victim-blaming according to one’s choice of clothing. By allowing body-shaming in schools, the policing of women’s bodies becomes normalized in aspects of life beyond educational institutions.

Comparatively, Dadeville, AL, is proposing a ban on sagging pants, miniskirts and shorts deemed “too short” by implementing a city-wide dress code. Frank Goodman, a Dadeville city council member, was quoted saying, “I prayed about this. I know that God would not go around with pants down.” Teaching our youth that their bodies are symbols of virtue or sin illustrates how religious institutions are often connected with oppression, especially towards marginalized groups. This extension into a city-wide dress code emphasizes how slut-shaming dress codes in schools embed these oppressive ideas into young minds.

It’s important to note that the Dadeville city-wide code takes this dress code issue a step further. Goodman goes on to ask, “Who is going to respect you if you don’t respect yourself?” He attempts to define what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” using biblically-based respectability politics which restrict young people’s self-expression. This nullifies the fundamental purpose of freedom of expression and limits the first amendment rights of individuals by eliminating any possibility of expression for those who do not—or cannot—fit the approved aesthetic. By enforcing a singular idea of what denotes “respectable” appearance, this proposal promotes and excuses discrimination of those outside of these pre-determined standards.

Taking a closer look at the specific proposed bans, it’s clear that it is not a matter of respect, but control. Targeting sagging pants directly correlates to the targeting of communities of color in an effort to assimilate them into a narrow idea of “respectable” expression and criminalize even minor aspects of their daily lives. This creates an environment where it’s acceptable for people to deem those who wear sagging pants unworthy of respect. Similarly, school dress codes that target clothes typically worn by girls attempt to slut-shame, victim blame, and police women’s bodies, thereby furthering the idea that women are objects that lack agency.

Strict dress codes also threaten those who lack the societal privilege held by the upper-class white collar workers who have the societal power to set standards of appearance and respectability. Attempting to assert styles of dress typically associated with those with power as being “correct” dismisses all other groups as wrong and worthy of scrutiny and punishment.

Policies like Huntsville’s school dress codes reflect societal dynamics of power and oppression by restricting and policing marginalized groups’ ability to express themselves and exist comfortably. Dress code practices enforce the idea that those who do not conform to patriarchal and racist politics of “respectable” behavior are not worthy of respect at all. Dadeville’s public dress code proposal ignores that as humans, we all deserve the basic rights to self-expression, and we are inherently worthy of respect, regardless of appearance or identity.

Lindsay Macher is a junior majoring in chemical engineering.