Middle School Students Push for a Gender-Neutral Dress Code—And Win

School dress codes often ban specific articles of clothing and require teachers to make subjective judgment calls about whether students’ attire is “distracting.” Photo by Sarah Mirk (Creative Commons). 

When she was in seventh grade, Sophia Carlson and her friends noticed an annoying pattern at Irvington School in Portland, Oregon. Teachers were sending girls to the office for dress-code violations, like wearing skirts or shorts that the teachers thought were inappropriately short. After one of her friends missed half a day of school, confined to the principal’s office because a teacher deemed her shorts too short, Carlson and a group of students asked the principal about dress code enforcement. The principal confirmed their observations: While the dress code was supposedly in place for all students, in practice, it was only enforced against girls.

Teachers pulling girls out of class because their shorts are too short seems like a scene from a 1950s teen movie, but it’s a reality in many schools across the United States today. “The loss of educational time disproportionately targets girls,” says Carlson, who’s now 14. “It’s a very embarrassing and shaming moment, to get dress-coded. We’re still doing that to girls in school right now? We’re still measuring their clothes and telling them to change? That seems ridiculous.”

The principal encouraged Carlson and her friends to push to change the dress code for the whole school district. And so they did: In May 2015, they testified in front of the Portland Public Schools board about the dire need for a dress code overhaul. After a year of work, a committee of students, parents, and school administrators drafted a new gender-neutral dress code that they hope will be a model for other school districts around the country. The school board unanimously approved the new gender-neutral dress code on July 25.

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The gender politics of dress codes are an issue in school districts around the country. Portland’s case is a good example of how dress codes that aim to keep students from being disruptive leads to punishing girls for wearing clothing that adults think could “distract” boys. In Portland Public Schools, each school’s dress code was different, but many schools’ policies were written with subjective language—“skirts that are not too short or tight may be worn”—and arbitrary definitions of what’s “too short” that varied based on students’ body sizes. To measure the acceptable length of shorts, for example, teachers would employ a tactic that seemed like it belonged back in the 1960s: They’d ask students to put their arms straight down by their sides—shorts had to be longer than where their index finger hit their thigh. Other policies banned visible bra straps, spaghetti-strap shirts, and “plunging necklines.” Students and parents say that teachers cited girls for dress code violations almost exclusively and that girls who had bigger bodies or who developed breasts earlier were often singled out while their smaller peers wore similar outfits with no problem.  

A student protesting the dress codes at her school posted these signs on campus. Photo source.

Policing girls’ clothes sends a strong cultural message, says Lisa Frack, one of the parents who helped craft the new gender-neutral dress code. “It was the cover-up approach. It’s saying that girls are distracting boys from learning. It’s teaching, of course, that girls are responsible for boys’ reactions, which is a dangerous road to go down.” Many people have argued that instead of cracking down on girls’ outfits, schools should work to stop harassment.

The new dress code (PDF) scraps the old system of listing out specific clothing styles that students can and can’t wear. Instead of aiming to stop students from “being distracting,” its goal is to protect students’ health and safety. Here are the basic rules:

“Students must wear clothing including both a shirt with pants or skirt, or the equivalent (for example dresses, leggings, or shorts) and shoes. Shirts and dresses must have fabric in the front and on the sides (under the arms). Clothing must cover undergarments (waistbands and straps excluded). Fabric covering breasts, genitals and buttocks must be opaque.”

The new dress code also states that school administrators must weigh the cost of pulling a student out of class just because they’re wearing short shorts:

“School-directed changes to a student’s attire or grooming should be the least restrictive and disruptive to the student’s school day. Any school dress code enforcement actions should minimize the potential loss of educational time. Administration and enforcement of the dress code shall be gender neutral and consistent with the PPS racial equity policy.”

While it’s a relatively small shift, revamping dress codes will mean genuine changes in the lives of students. At the school board meeting where the board approved the gender-neutral dress code, one mom explained how the old dress code had hurt her daughter: After returning to school for treatment for an eating disorder, she was called into the principal’s office and lectured for an hour about her outfit. “To have her called out by an adult in her school shaming her for the way she looked after we just got through a treatment program was shocking,” the mom told the school board.

Gender-equality groups have applauded the change. “In a society rife with victim blaming like ours, ending this message is critical to changing the way girls, and, ultimately, the women they grow up to be, perceive themselves and the way boys, and, ultimately, the men they grow up to be, learn to respect the girls and women in their lives,” says Oregon NOW Executive Director Michelle Ganow-Jones.

As she heads into her freshman year of high school, Carlson is glad that her school will be a more welcoming place for her and her friends. “I feel like changing this gives students a voice,” she says. “Why do we think it’s the girls’ fault for distracting boys?”

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

gender neutral dress, vs shaming girls

Those kids are awesome. By blaming and shaming girls, we are not teaching the boys to be responsible for their own behavior, instead we foster male entitlement, and victim blaming.

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