Rips, Frays, and Fingertip Shorts: Gender and School Dress Code

girl with books

For moms of daughters who are school-age, it’s about as easy as homemade pie to find clothing that comes somewhere in between their ideas of fashion and comfort and our desire to be budget-conscious and have them look presentable.

Throw in the school dress code, and you have a dilemma that even the most accomplished pie-maker would be hard-pressed to roll out.

Take shorts with a hem that falls right at the fingertips, when arms are placed at the sides. Sounds easy enough, but what happens when your daughter has long arms? And sits in 90-degree classrooms with no air-conditioning, which makes Bermudas something akin to torture?

That means poring over numerous online shopping sites after failing to find anything in the ten or so stores you’ve visited, to find something that would

(a) fit her frame

(b) be comfortable enough

(c) be age-appropriate

(d) be affordable

I know this frustration isn’t mine alone. With more than half of US public schools enforcing dress codes, it’s something that a large number of parents need to deal with. I’ve heard horror stories from mothers who are equally aggravated. But what’s worse are moms who finally do find something that works for whatever complex circumstances they’re dealing with, only to have the school administrators throw a wrench into their efforts for no valid reason.

Or for reasons that are downright sexist. I’m talking about those incidents where girls are being called out for wearing leggings, showing bra straps, or exposing their shoulders, all of which go against school code.

Although I don’t necessarily disagree with some of the rules, I do take offense at codes that discriminate against young women in particular, and that tend to place the blame on them for male students’ and teachers’ “uncontrollable” urges.

Like the school official who told one Florida high school student, who sported ripped jeans, that she needed to take into consideration her male peers “and their hormones” when deciding what to wear to school. Similar situations have become painfully ubiquitous. Just Google “school dress code” and it becomes clear that this isn’t a case of one or two isolated incidents. (See here and here, for example).

Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal of ripped jeans, and I actually think that clothing that’s excessively ripped or torn just looks terrible and shouldn’t be worn anywhere except maybe for a Halloween costume as a victim of a zombie apocalypse. But the rule should apply to both males and females, and the reasoning should have nothing to do with garnering the “wrong” kind of attention.

That kind of “victim blaming” is what can be dangerous for our kids, because it places the onus of gender violence on young women. We’re teaching girls that if they dress a certain way, they’ll invite unwanted attention. At the same time, we’re teaching boys that certain appearances are virtually green lights for inappropriate behavior.

girl with backpack

It’s not just the moms and dads who are up in arms about this. Students themselves have voiced their concerns over what they consider to be unfair and sexist school policies. lists hundreds of open petitions protesting restrictive gender-based dress codes, including ones that prohibit boys from wearing long hair and girls from wearing athletic shorts.

I thought that kind of thinking went out with mp3 players. In fact, it made me remember an incident from my long ago past, when my 40-something male office manager asked me to make sure that my 20-something assistant dressed in a way that wasn’t so “distracting.” “Her dress is too low,” he had said, “and well…it’s distracting.” I looked at her, and realized that because she had curves up top, you could see a teeny bit of cleavage at the modest neckline of her floral, A-line dress.

“Her dress is fine,” I snapped. “If you have a problem with it, then don’t look at her.”

Of course, this was more than 20 years ago, when sexist behavior like that, though unacceptable, was more open. But with the recent brouhaha over dress code “violations,” such outmoded thinking doesn’t seem so prehistoric after all. It also seems that girls with more curves have a harder time with school dress codes, because certain clothing doesn’t hide their bodies enough. The debate over dress restrictions has also raised questions about whether race figures into the picture. One study by the National Women’s Law Center reports that African American girls in DC-areas schools are “disproportionately targeted” for violating school dress codes, whether for skirt length or for using head-wraps.

So what’s the answer? A dress code that doesn’t discriminate based on gender (or race) and doesn’t use a rationale based on wrongful blaming. A shift in attitudes towards women will only come when we shift our understanding of sexist behavior. We can’t attribute such behavior to the women themselves, but to the source—a culture that enables this. We can’t stop gender discrimination until we understand how deeply misguided expectations of how women “should” behave impact our everyday lives.Kids spend the majority of their young lives in school, where they learn not just the three R’s but also morals, ethics, and social roles. Their ideas of gender are shaped in the classroom and the schoolyard.

A dress code that sets different boundaries for girls than boys just teaches them that the sexes aren’t on equal footing.

If you ask my daughter, she’ll say the answer is to get rid of any dress code. Who has time for this? she demands. It’s a reasonable question. As a high schooler who would really just like to focus on getting through the school day, she’d much rather spend her time studying for her Biology test than worrying about whether or not her shorts are the “right” length.

I’d certainly prefer that, too.

Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.

2 thoughts on “Rips, Frays, and Fingertip Shorts: Gender and School Dress Code

  1. Fantastic site you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any
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    1. Hi! We’d recommend checking out the links in this article. They provide more information and resources about spaces dedicated to these issues.

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