HeForShe: How School Dress Codes Sexualize Young Girls


July 13, 2020

From a very young age, children are taught that what they wear is a form of expression that should not offend others. This lesson of avoiding clothes with racial slurs or depictions of illegal activities is good to learn at a young age, unless the restrictions are taken too far.

Girls are often the victims of more extreme restrictions, and even though the limits to their attire may seem minimal, the justification behind setting them in place are often detrimental to girls' self-image.

When young girls and women are taught that their shoulders or knees are a distraction, they lose the ability to feel comfortable in their own skin, and that is essential to developing a sense of self-love and self-acceptance.

What It Means to Be "Dress-Coded"

If you are not familiar with the term, to be "dress-coded" is to be called out or written up by a teacher or authority figure in an institution for inappropriate clothing. This is not always a bad thing, depending on the intent and the consequences for being dress-coded.

Sometimes, a dress code can result in the removal of an offensive article of clothing exhibiting racist or sexist concepts. This is an example of when a dress code violation is justified as it intends to make everyone in the institution feel safe and accepted.

More often than not, however, a student may be written up with a dress code violation for the wrong reasons. The word "distracting" gets thrown around a lot in relation to girls' exposed bra straps, shoulders, knees, and midriffs. These parts of the body are sexualized by school administrations by showing girls that their bodies are objects of attraction and therefore can become distracting when even partially exposed.

If the punishment for a dress code violation results in missing part of class or some of the school day, then the consequence of the dress code violation is worse than the girl's bra straps or shoulders remaining visible, prioritizing the sexualization of girls over their education.

The Harmful Effects of Over-Sexualized Dress Codes

With young girls as targets for being sexualized by dress codes, it can be incredibly detrimental to the children's self-image and confidence. When girls are told that their choice of expression may distract classmates and staff, more often than not this refers to the male classmates and staff who seem to need to be sheltered from girls' and women's bodies.

Such comments over students' attire objectifies the child's body and blames the person wearing clothes, rather than the people who perceive a young girls' shoulders or knees as distracting.

Another common issue that is associated with being "dress-coded" is missing essential class time. When told to go to the nurses office or even to go home due to inappropriate attire, students are taught that their outfits mean more than their education. If an item of clothing is offensive or crude, then actions should be taken to cover it up, as it can disrupt others' feelings of safety.

If the faculty unfairly deem an article of clothing inappropriate–such as an exposed a bra strap, shoulder, or knee–and the student misses class to mend the fashion infraction, then it is not only unfair to write a student up, but also unethical.

The priority of an academic institution is to promote a safe learning environment, and the objectification of women does not create a positive environment for the girls who feel they cannot express themselves freely.

Comparison to Male Dress Code

When comparing the written rules of the dress code for young females to those of male students, the rules themselves may not always vary drastically. In theory, the dress code can be very equally ruled. In practice, however, the common no-shoulder rule is not enforced with boys, as well as the rule meant to hide students' knees.

While girls are often written up for off-the-shoulder tops, boys can usually attend class in a tank top without facing punishment. Boys can also usually attend school wearing athletic shorts that do not cover their knees without repercussions, whereas girls would be told to cover up.

This could be for many reasons depending on the faculty at a school, but it is most usually because girls are considered to be distracting to male staff and students, which sexualizes their bodies, whereas boys do not pose the same issues to females.

How Dress Codes Perpetrate Rape Culture

Because girls are targeted for harsher dress codes, school policies become tied to the widespread issue of blaming victims of sexual assault and rape victims for their choice of clothing rather than the person who commits the assault. This blame-the-victim mentality teaches girls that their body is not their own instead of teaching boys and men how to respect others' bodies.

There is a very direct connection between "your shorts distract boys" to "your shorts are the reason you were assaulted", as both phrases convey a common conception in society: boys and men cannot control themselves and thus they cannot be held accountable for their actions. This is offensive to males and detrimental to girls' self-image, yet is still a case made in trials involving rape and sexual assault cases.

As reported by RAINN, an organization dedicated to helping victims of sexual violence, only about 4% of sexual assault perpetrators go to jail, making them less likely to go to jail than other criminal. Only 23% of sexual assault cases are even reported. This can partially be attributed to the lessons that girls learn growing up, that as the victim it is their fault, and so they do not report it.

When shaming girls for their attire instead of teaching boys that girls are not sexual objects, schools and institutions preach hypocrisy as they claim to have an inclusive and equal environment for all students, yet offer no such thing.

When a girl's school day is interrupted so that she can change clothes due to her outfit being considered distracting, children and adolescents are being taught that distracting from a boy's education is worse than a girl missing out on class altogether.

Dress codes are put in place to make learning and working environments safe and unoffensive, but when girls are taught their their bodies and their education need to be controlled by their male peers, a safe and accepting environment is far from reality.

Noa Ran-Ressler
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Writer since May, 2020 · 3 published articles

Noa is an aspiring journalist with a passion for sustainability, both on and off the page. When she is not writing, you can find her watching Masterclass videos, gardening an excessive amount of bell peppers, or planning her unrealized hiking career.