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Dress Codes: Foundations of Rape Culture


Recently in Illinois, a middle school banned girls from wearing yoga pants or leggings because they were deemed “too distracting.” While this move was met significant protests from students and parents alike, Illinois is not an isolated incident. Across the nation, schools are banning all types of dresses, shirts, and pants that girls can wear. I myself still remember the time in 9th grade when I was walking through the cafeteria, donning my Adidas running shorts, and I was stopped by my PE teacher who glared accusingly at my offending getup and told me to “go up to the office and put some real pants on.” At the time, I was embarrassed that I had broken that sacred high school dress code. Unfortunately my experience is not unique, and it’s not even bad compared to what some administrators at other schools do to enforce their dress codes. While ideas about appropriate clothing in school are arbitrary, the enforcement of school dress codes is characterized by gendered notions about what is appropriate, targeting girls for their sexuality and propagating the culture that leads to institutionalized slut-shaming and rape culture.

While dress codes are established in elementary school and continue in high schools, they tend to be more heavily emphasized during teens’ awkward, pubescent developmental stages. Supposedly gender-objective dress codes are enforced in a way that entails a double standard, which ultimately favors males over females. In terms of sexual provocativeness, boys can wear essentially whatever they want; bro tanks and baggy pants that sag may garner a ‘tsk’ or disapproving frown from administrators but are not deemed ‘inappropriate’ or ‘too revealing’. In fact, when it comes down to it, there really is no true male equivalent of ‘slutty’ clothes unless males wear ‘girls’ clothes. Usually the only reason male clothing is restricted is if it portrays or refers to violence, drugs, or gang-related activities.  While the majority of boys are mostly free from the constraints of wearing clothing that could be categorized as provocative dress, girls are constantly being penalized for what they are wearing.

The problem is not just that there’s unequal treatment for boys and girls under the dress code, but the logic behind that difference. From a young age, teens are taught through the enforcement of dress codes that females are responsible for the sexualization of their bodies based on what they wear. Girls can’t wear shorts that aren’t finger-tip length, shirts that may show the curvature of their breasts, or tight pants/yoga pants/leggings, etc. because they are revealing and “are distracting for other students”. Through this logic, schools essentially force the objectification of the female body onto the girls, making it their responsibility to cover up so as not to be ‘distracting’ for their hormone-infused male peers. By absolving male students of any part or responsibility in how they perceive the female body, the dress code takes on the assumption that ‘boys will be boys’ – the belief that men are naturally more impulsive in acting on their desires, hence, it is up to the ladies to save them the trouble. This reasoning is not at all innocent. It does not serve to protect girls since it propagates an institutionalized form of slut-shaming, and isn’t a legitimate attempt by school administrators to establish an appropriate learning environment because of its dangerous applications outside of the classroom. One of the clearest examples of the logic behind the dress code in a greater societal context is the phenomenon of rape culture, in which women who have suffered rape or sexual assault/harassment are told that they were “asking for it” because of what they wore. Just as with dress codes, public discourse about rape questions the choices the woman made rather than the man’s. Just as teenage girls are taught that they must watch what they wear in order to not distract boys, society encourages women to wear more modest clothes to keep themselves from being raped or sexually assaulted rather than to teach men to respect and value an individual’s physical autonomy and dignity.* By implying that men can’t control themselves or their impulses, the ideas behind dress codes extend beyond the limits of the schoolyard and are used to justify rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment on the grounds that it results from the “suggestive” clothing that girls wear.

While objective dress codes, both in content and in implementation, are reasonable in school settings since clothing can play a part in establishing a proper learning environment, they should not be used to construct ideas of ‘sluttiness’ and solely target the female body. Current dress codes penalize female sexuality, making it the girls’ responsibility to cater to males’ supposedly uncontrollable desires and impulses, which further propagates the phenomenon of rape culture. In this way, dress codes have essentially become tools through which institutionalized slut-shaming takes place. In order to begin addressing this issue and its role in rape culture, middle schools and junior highs should stop focusing on a gender-based dichotomy in their treatment of dress codes and instead teach students mutual respect for the autonomy of everyone’s bodies.

*This does not mean to suggest that the only instances of rape and sexual assault that occur are always carried out by men against women; I am speaking very generally based on the gender-binary nature of dress codes and the dominant discourse on rape culture.

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