Dress Codes: A Symptom of a Gendered Problem

As I was moving a few weeks ago, Jessica Valenti published a fascinating article in The Nation about the dress code at Stuyvesant High School in New York and how school officials use the dress code to target female students with certain body types. In the article, she quotes several students who had spoken with local newspapers about a protest designed to draw attention to what they feel is a discriminating dress code. Valenti goes on to argue that the dress code is possibly violating the young women’s Title IX rights by predominantly targeting female students, and ends her article with the conclusion that the dress code is unfair because “It’s not the responsibility of female students to mitigate the male gaze.” She goes on to say:

You find female bodies “distracting”? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice.

The students at Stuyvesant are some of the brightest out there—they want to learn and to engage with each other and the world around them. Whether or not they wear tank tops or shorts while they do so is irrelevant.

I’m glad the students are taking action—though I hope they don’t just limit it to one day. If my daughter were a student at Stuyvesant, I’d encourage her to break the dress code until the administration changed it. Because the real “distraction” here isn’t skirts—it’s is the shaming and shameful way this high school is treating women.

While I agree with Valenti on the point that we – as a society – need to change the way men feel they can treat women, and we also need to stop making the male gaze the women’s responsibility to combat, I disagree with her assessment that dress codes in high schools unfairly target women enough to violate their Title IX rights, and I vehemently disagree that dress codes should be protested until changed.

It is clear to me from this article that Valenti doesn’t spend much time in high schools. As a high school teacher, I can say that dress codes – for men and women – are an absolute must. I teach in a very diverse area where poverty and gangs are problems we face every day. If our administration did not regulate what clothing could be worn in school based on gang colors and symbols, we would have many more problems than we do.

Furthermore, dress codes are often seen as a way to minimize distractions in the classroom. While they do this in many ways – not least of which is eliminating gang paraphernalia from student dress – young women think they are asked to “cover up” because their male peers can’t handle themselves around their short skirts and bare shoulders. However, dress codes in school are just like any other dress code in a workplace. Most workplaces have dress codes that require both women and men to dress professionally. For students, being in school is their job, and it should be treated as such. Asking students to dress respectfully and professionally is not only within the school’s right, it is also preparing them for the world after high school.

High schoolers are at an age where they think that everything is about them, so I am not surprised that the female students at Stuyvesant High School think that they are being targeted. High school students in general think that they are being targeted. All. The. Time. I can tell you all kinds of stories about how I’ve told one student to stop doing something, and then, five minutes later, told another student to stop doing the same thing, only to have student #2 jump out of his seat and yell, “Why you always gotta pick on me?!” It just goes to show you that, when teachers and administrators correct behavior and students don’t like it, they feel unfairly targeted. It’s the age; you were probably like that in high school, too. I would hope (and assume) that the administration at Stuyvesant has and enforces a dress code for male students, as well, and I think some information on that side of the issue would be important  in determining whether or not female students were, in fact, being unfairly targeted.

While I do disagree with administrators using scare tactics, victim blaming, and the assumption that young men can’t control their desires as reasons to enforce dress codes with young women, I absolutely agree with a dress code for everyone in the school – teachers and administrators included – that is judiciously enforced. The problem that Valenti outlines in her article is not about school dress codes, but about how society sees women’s bodies and the way men look at women’s bodies. Protesting the dress code is dealing with a symptom, not the disease.

5 thoughts on “Dress Codes: A Symptom of a Gendered Problem

  1. I think the biggest problem in the Stuyvesant case is not the dress code but how faculty and staff are enforcing it. Telling young women that they look like prostitutes and that if they are raped that they will never marry is so problematic and awful…let’s just say there is smoke coming out of my ears.

    I agree with you that dress codes are necessary. I also went to a school that had a very serious gang problem which is why the code was created in the first place – in fact, the junior highs now have uniforms (khakis and solid color shirts – though poorly decided colors) because “colors” were such a big issue. However, a lot of these codes are discriminatory in many different ways. I actually ended up getting our district code changed with the help of the ACLU because it was discriminatory against tall people (4″ above the knee was deemed discriminatory, whereas “below the fingertip” was not). Consequently I spent the next 5 years putting my hand down to show that my skirts and shorts adhered to the code.

    • Ashley on

      I do believe that the way they are enforced is problematic, but from my experience, it can go both ways. Guys at my school can’t wear earrings, not because of gang issues, but because it’s not appropriate for them to do so. Interesting… But yes, the way that it is enforced can make all the difference. I just wish that Valenti had outlined some more of the issue instead of jumping on it as a violation of their Title IX rights. I think, if we looked closer, there would be problems on all sides of the gender fence.

  2. I had a very similar reaction to Valenti’s article. I don’t think that dress codes are inherently bad. I actually think they’re awesome! What I want to see is equal enforcement across the student population.

    • Ashley on

      Rachel –

      Totally agreed. It’s all about how the rules are enforced, not the rules themselves. Which, I think, is probably the case with most gender discrimination at this point.

  3. While I think Valenti sometimes tackles good topics, I feel that she often exploits the women she is writing about. She extrapolates way out into the stratosphere (like the Title IX thing here) and often chooses shock value over substance. Sometimes I think her articles are just designed to prompt outrage (and by extension garner traffic and ad revenue for the news outlet) rather than attempting to look at issues with any real nuance. Just my two cents.

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