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#MyPowersuit - Dress Code Conversation

Mar 03, 2017

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Meeting Volée around the country and world is one of my favorite Oiselle positivity infusions. Example 1: NC Volée teammate Torrie Edwards, doing such interesting work around dress codes. I hope you enjoy our dialogue, and please contribute your insights!

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SALLY: When we got a chance to meet and run the day after the march in DC, I learned about your graduate work: dress codes for girls and women in an educational setting. I love this topic! Having two teen daughters, I know from observation that schools often have wildly different stances on appropriate dress for girls and boys, from elementary to middle and high school.

Anecdotally, things I've heard either at our schools or around the country - as it pertains to girls:

  • No yoga pants
  • No spandex shorts
  • No cami tops
  • No sports in only a sports bra

And that the above is often enforced while questionable boys' fashion may go un-checked.

Complicating this issue is the rise of girls and women in sports. As we know, athletic clothing can be more fitted. The intention of the designs is to enable movement, and to empower the athlete from within - based on how they feel - rather than how they appear. Form vs. function. But one can't exist without the other.

What's your take on the modern dress code? What are the trends you're seeing - here in 2017?

TORRIE: Dress code policy has been a controversial topic since the 1900’s! Dress code policy really took off in the 1990s, when schools sought ways to protect students from gang violence and theft, to alleviate inequalities, and to instill discipline in young people. These policies have faced legal challenges due to their potential gendered and racialized implications, and for targeting girls’ clothing, in particular. Dress codes potentially unfairly restrict girls’ clothing choices, because they explicitly demand girls cover their bodies to discourage "promiscuity" - which sexualizes young girls’ bodies. Examining public school data, it is easy to identify the unequal attention paid to girls’ clothing versus boys’ clothing (which also erases students who may not identify within traditional gender categories). Because dress codes have been addressed by and mostly upheld in the U.S. district, appellate, and Supreme courts, dress codes remain largely unchanged regardless of the gendered and racialized language and disproportionate implementation of the policies.

S: DO YOU SEE THAT SCHOOLS WANT DIFFERENT RULES FOR ELEMENTARY VS. MIDDLE VS. HIGH SCHOOL?

T: Generally school districts will have a single dress code included in their policy manuals that applies to all levels of schools. Sometimes a specific school adopts the policy put forth by the district and then adds its own restrictions to it. These additions may be distinguished by school level, or they may simply be community expectations for everyone, regardless of age. Some argue this brings a host of potential issues for inequity across a state and within locales, while others argue that this allows communities to educate children in the way that fits their values.

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S: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GENDERS, IN TERMS OF HOW THEY'RE AFFECTED BY DRESS CODE? 

T: There absolutely is, and in two major ways: first, in the language of policies; and second, in implementation. Looking at all the publicly available dress codes from the 115 school districts in North Carolina, there are clear patterns of inequity. Girls’ clothing and bodies are specifically identified in more than 15 restrictions, including “midriff,” “thigh,” “cleavage,” “spaghetti straps,” “leggings/spandex,” whereas boys’ gender-specific clothing (that is, boys are typical wearers of these items) is referenced once. The only specific restriction to males is “sagging pants.” The one rule for boys’ clothing is about a single item that may signal criminal behavior. Girls’ clothing restrictions focus on covering entire body parts, thereby penalizing girls for simply existing. These codes also do not even begin to consider the implications of gendered language on transgender or gender non-conforming students.

Race compounds these gender biases. Headwear and hairstyles often worn by Black and African-American students are explicitly banned in policies. Doo-rags, hair picks, and locs, for instance, are prohibited, but accessories worn primarily by White girls, such as barrettes, hair clips, and headbands, are not. Exacerbating written bias is unequal enforcement of policies. In North Carolina, recent data indicate that Black and African-American students are suspended 6 times as often for dress code violations than their White counterparts. Girls make up the majority of dress code violations, and so non-White girl students suffer the greatest disproportionality in implementation.

What’s really interesting is that girls haven’t always been the central concern of dress code policy. The history of American dress code can be broken up into clear chunks of time when different groups were targeted in policy and implementation. In the 70s and 80s, policies focused on boys’ hair and grooming habits as creating distracting learning environments. The 1990s brought major policy focus on crime in schools, student morality (like vulgarity and lewdness), and student safety; certain symbols, colors, and even sagging pants, considered linked to (mostly) males’ gang activity and criminal behavior, were banned in dress codes. The early 2000s saw greater attention on political speech (slogans or symbols) in dress codes, which many schools tried to limit because it could be offensive or potentially threatening. And today, we know, many focus on gender inequities in dress codes.   

S: WHAT MESSAGE DO WE SEND GIRLS WITH DRESS CODE? 

T: By definition, dress codes restrict what students can wear. By limiting girls’ choices to clothes that fit a narrow definition of what is acceptable, they become a means to mask female bodies and sexuality. For example, a lot of dress codes use unisex clothing as the norm, clothing that often deemphasizes and de-genderizes girls’ bodies. This focus on controlling girls’ bodies reinforces the traditional narrative that girls’ bodies should be covered and hidden, not something to take visible pride in or show off. When we write policies that force girls to dress a particular way, we encode this narrative into our institutions themselves. Dress codes articulate dominant social norms, placing unequal burden on girls to be responsible for the moral climate of schools; they promote the cultural image of girls who must be controlled for their own good and for the welfare of those around them.

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S: DO YOU THINK THERE SHOULD BE DIFFERENT CODES WITH REGARD TO "REGULAR" CLOTHES VS. ATHLETIC CLOTHES?

T: I don’t think we should have dress codes at all because of problems with inequitable enforcement, but the courts have historically deferred to schools and upheld policies. So I don’t think I’m winning that battle! I absolutely think students should be able to wear their sports team uniforms in school. As members and contributors in their school communities, student athletes should not be directly or indirectly barred from wearing their uniforms outside of games/matches/meets. These restrictions affect girl athletes more than boy athletes too. What are we saying to girls when we say that they cannot wear the shorts or the tights from their uniforms to school, but males can wear their football pants, or shorts, or sweatpants? A blanket policy allowing all athletes to wear their uniforms would alleviate some of that disparity. Attention also needs to be paid to revising dress codes overall to be more inclusive generally, and with greater attention to potential and real biases in the policies.  

S: ARE THERE CERTAIN SPORTS THAT ARE AT THE CENTER OF DRESS CODE CONVERSATION? 

T: Sports’ uniforms are not really anywhere to be seen in formal conversations about dress code, yet we know from various regulations that girls’ sports wear is necessarily restricted in schools. Main parts of girls teams’ uniforms like spandex tights and shorts, shorts that aren’t finger tip length, and sleeveless tops are all banned in many high school dress codes. On the other side of this, boys’ uniforms don’t face the same kind of regulation, because the uniforms are designed differently. We provide space to celebrate boys’ athletic achievements; it is part of schools’ institutional cultures. Yet, by banning the styles of clothes used in girls’ uniforms off the field/court/track, we send the message that girls’ sports, and the inherent strength and achievements of girl athletes, are not to be celebrated publicly and institutionally, but to be done privately and individually.

S: I WOULD IMAGINE THAT THERE'S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ELEMENTARY OR MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL DRESSING "PROVOCATIVELY" VS. A HIGH SCHOOL GIRL. HOW DO INSTITUTIONS NAVIGATE BETWEEN THAT SPACE OF PROTECTING GIRLS FROM SENDING SIGNALS THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND, OR THAT MIGHT PUT THEM AT RISK VS. ALLOWING THEM TO EMBRACE SELF EXPRESSION AND THEIR OWN SEXUALITY?

T: This is tough. It really comes down to what we think the role of school is: is it to prepare a regimented, career-ready workforce, or is it to foster human development and citizenship? While these two ideas are not by definition mutually exclusive, they manifest this way in the conversation around public school policy—it is one or the other. Regarding dress codes, on the one hand, it is unlikely you could find someone who would argue that schools should allow students to arrive in just underwear, thereby indicating some fundamental expectations for student dress. On the other hand, schools also need to be a place where students can safely express themselves, develop personal pride, and grow into their own people. This includes allowing for young women to wear clothes they want to wear, without prescribing it some moral index. The most obvious example here is leggings and yoga pants. Often worn for comfort, spandex pants are frequently banned because they hug the body and show off a girl’s physical form; in this way, we tell girls that their bodies are sexual, and should be hidden in public spaces. Navigating these two extremes can be very difficult for schools, and we see this tension arising in districts across the country. 

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