A new analysis of dress codes in Washington, D.C., public high schools by the National Women's Law Center found the rules on what is acceptable still largely fall on female students and still censure personal choices. The analysis builds on the center's 2018 report, "Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies and Bias in D.C. Schools." That report concluded black girls suffer disproportionately from dress and grooming rules and can fall behind because of being pulled out of class for their clothes, hair or makeup. For example, black girls have been threatened with suspension for cornrows or braided hair extensions, which dress codes vilify as distractions or dangers.
“Although we focus on D.C., this is an issue that is popping up everywhere,” said Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, the center’s director of educational equity and senior counsel. “It is usually girls of color who are dress coded, girls who don’t fit the stereotype of what white femininity is, girls who are curvier.”
Young women increasingly are fighting dress codes that punish them for wearing anything deemed “unduly revealing and distracting.” In Washington, students argued that the everyday occurrence of girls being scrutinized and shamed for their bodies reinforced the sexualization of girls and women. A measure of their success: Starting in the 2020-2021 school year, district schools will be prohibited from issuing out-of-school suspensions for dress code violations.
Girls are fighting back against dress codes that sexualize them.
Student activism is the driver of several Georgia-based petitions on Change.org. A Morgan County middle student left her orientation this summer feeling the message to girls was "because our bodies are changing, we have to hide them."
Her petition declares: "It's not okay to tell girls that because they're starting to grow and their figure is starting to fill out that they have to hide their bodies. This ruins a young women's body imagery. This is body shaming." The petition seeks more freedom for girls to wear shorts, especially given the heat. A similar student petition aimed at Hall County Schools states, "Being that we are in Georgia, it is always fairly warm. Most of the shorts that students will wear will come a little above the knee, which, of course, is against dress code."
“These girls are just looking for comfort on 90-degree days,” said Onyeka-Crawford. “We have to create schools where everyone can be comfortable without worrying whether or not some adult will think they are dressed in something inappropriate. More people should look back to when they were dress coded and remember how disempowering that felt. Our job is to empower students.”