Dress code enforcement is as American as apple pie. Most of us have had some experience with dress codes, either in school or the workplace. And like all other things American, dress codes often reinforce the racism and sexism that plague this country. As a result, girls—and especially Black girls—are at increased risk of missing out on critical class time because of the over policing of their bodies and clothing.
Why Dress Codes?
Nationally, Black girls in this country are 5.7 times more likely to be suspended from school than their White peers. Black girls are most often suspended for simply being who they are and not mimicking traditional ideals of femininity.
They miss out on class time not because they behave worse, but because they behave differently. And instead of celebrating their differences, Black girls are labeled “defiant,” they are tone-policed, and dress-coded for wearing hair wraps and having curvier bodies.
Girls deserve a platform to speak up, to let their voices be heard, to give solutions and to become advocates. That’s why the National Women’s Law Center released Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies and Bias in D.C., to give 21 Black girls attending middle and high schools in D.C that opportunity.
Like many girls across the country, Black girls in D.C. are subject to overly strict dress codes that regulate the length of skirts (65 percent of D.C. high schools have such a rule), ban tank tops (58 percent of D.C. high schools), ban hair wraps (68 percent of D.C. high schools) and many more rules that systematically exclude them from the classroom.
Many dress codes fail to create comfortable and safe learning environments and fail to reduce distractions. Instead, dress codes tend to pull girls away from class and place a higher value on their looks than their learning.
Dress codes communicate dangerous messages.
Dress codes send the message to girls that their looks are a distraction, especially to boys, and that the learning of boys is more important than their own learning. Many “Dress Coded” co-authors told stories about how adults on school premises told them that what they wear welcomes sexual harassment.
That is not only wrong, it’s incredibly dangerous. Girls have the right to feel safe in school no matter what they’re wearing. Even more important, children should not be sexualized by their peers or educators.
The girls also told us about the body shaming that occurred when girls are told their clothes are too tight, and their experience being forced to try on community uniform pants when they arrive to school with pants in the wrong shade. And several cited feeling frustrated, confused and embarrassed after these all too common occurrences, distracting them from what they should be focused on: learning.
Dress codes are a burden and financial strain on families.
Many schools have adopted uniforms as an equalizer. However, the research in “Dress Coded” revealed that uniforms can cause more harm than good. Schools in D.C. that serve a higher percentage of low-income families are more likely to have uniforms that can put an additional financial strain on families. Families often travel long distances to purchase costly shirts, pants, outerwear and shoes that meet dress code policies. Even though many families cannot do laundry throughout the week, they are required to send their children to school with spotless uniforms in perfect condition.
Dress codes are also a workplace justice issue, when we require parents to leave work and pick up their children because they aren’t wearing the right color shoes. When forced to leave work during their shift, parents are not only at risk to lose out on pay but in some cases are at increased risk to lose their jobs. Dress codes should not put increased burdens on families already struggling to make ends meet.
Dress codes reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes.
People make assumptions about who Black people are based solely on the color of their skin. Black boys who wear hoodies are dangerous and Black girls who wear shorts are promiscuous. Neither of these things are true: Both are racist and sexist stereotypes that are often reinforced by school dress codes.
Rules like these open the door for unequal enforcement and put Black children at increased risk to be pushed out of school.
As we enter the summer, when many schools begin to reevaluate their dress code and other policies, they should evaluate their dress code policies to make sure they are grounded in equity, celebrate expressions of diverse cultures, celebrate body diversity and welcome the engagement of parents and students. Because the bottom line is: Students should never miss out on class time because of what they are wearing.
Girls should never be told their education is secondary to their looks. And in this age of reckoning with sexual abuse and victim blaming, we need to stop policing girls’ bodies and start teaching boys to treat people with respect—no matter what they’re wearing. Ultimately, we need to stop pulling children out of schools for dress code violations. Because that’s the ultimate distraction.