Is Your Dress Code Sexist? A Guide.


It seems like you can’t open a browser window nowadays without confronting news that another school or university is catching flack over a dress code singling women out. But is there a way for schools and universities to tell students how to dress without it coming across as sexist?

For generations, dress codes in American schools hummed along relatively unchallenged and un-objected to, at least on a scale large enough to prompt anything to change. If a nun rapped you across the knuckles for rolling the waist of your uniform skirt and violating the fingertip rule, the most powerful people a savvy teen could complain to were her parents. Not anymore. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and the insatiable desire of the public to consume and share outrage, getting away with a bullshit sexist dress code is more difficult than ever. With that in mind, here are some surefire ways for schools to check themselves before wrecking themselves. If the answers to any of these questions are sexist, then yes, Virginia, your school dress code probably sucks.

Does the dress code specifically target women and not men?

The University of Texas-Austin Nursing School has removed dress code signs it posted earlier this week after critics rightfully pointed out that that the signs which banned such sartorial sins as visible cleavage and “low rise pants,” (which is insane because I have no idea where a person would even buy late 90’s Britney-style low rise pants 15 years after they stopped being fashionable) were sexist as hell. Revealing clothing “distracts” from the learning environment, say the signs. Distracts whom? The teachers? Maybe schools having difficulty with students who are “distracted” should consider disciplining the distracted entities rather than the students who dare wear a shirt that reveals top boob meat.

Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.

And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound like sexist shitheads, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.

Does the dress code have nothing whatsoever to do with student safety?

Certain classes involve activities that necessitate extra clothing coverage — classes that require experiments involving chemicals that shouldn’t come in direct contact with skin, for example, or a gym class requiring ability to move easily in clothing. But I’m dubious that a class exists where student safety is threatened by an exposed bra strap or 30.

In an ideal world, a dress code based on safety or practicality and not on the amorphous concept of “professionalism” should spell out why too much skin, or loose clothing, or open toed shoes could be dangerous.

Does the dress code subject female violators to Hester Prynne-style public humiliation?

A Canadian girl accused her school of “slut-shaming” when she was compelled to perform the “fingertip test” on her shorts in front of a classroom of students, and then asked to change. Singling out students and humiliating them for wearing the wrong clothing is probably a bad look.

Does violating the dress code unleash a disproportionate rage-reaction from school administrators that just makes things worse?

This item isn’t directly tied to sexism, but it’s noteworthy on this list nonetheless: Several students in an Atlanta-area school were suspended today over responding to a Facebook post that contained plans to violate their school dress code en masse during the last week of classes (including — GASP — wearing red one of the days). None of them had even done anything; this was pure thoughtcrime.

Schools should probably consider not doing this.

Image via Shutterstock.

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