Maggie Sunseri was a middle-school student in Versailles, Kentucky, when she first noticed a major difference in the way her school’s dress code treated males and females. Girls were disciplined disproportionately, she says, a trend she’s seen continue over the years. At first Sunseri simply found this disparity unfair, but upon realizing administrators’ troubling rationale behind the dress code—that certain articles of girls’ attire should be prohibited because they “distract” boys—she decided to take action.
“I’ve never seen a boy called out for his attire even though they also break the rules,” says Sunseri, who last summer produced Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code, a film featuring interviews with dozens of her classmates and her school principal, that explores the negative impact biased rules can have on girls’ confidence and sense of self. The documentary now has tens of thousands of YouTube views, while a post about the dress-code policy at her high school—Woodford County High—has been circulated more than 45,000 times on the Internet.
At Woodford County High, the dress code bans skirts and shorts that fall higher than the knee and shirts that extend below the collarbone. Recently, a photo of a female student at the school who was sent home after wearing a seemingly appropriate outfit that nonetheless showed collarbone—went viral on Reddit and Twitter.
While research on dress codes remains inconclusive regarding the correlation between their implementation with students’ academic outcomes, many educators agree that they can serve an important purpose: helping insure a safe and comfortable learning environment, banning T-shirts with offensive racial epithets, for example. When students break the rules by wearing something deemed inappropriate, administrators must, of course, enforce school policies.
The process of defining what’s considered “offensive” and “inappropriate,” however, can get quite murky. Schools may promote prejudiced policies, even if those biases are unintentional. For students who attend schools with particularly harsh rules like that at Woodford, one of the key concerns is the implication that women should be hypercognizant about their physical identity and how the world responds to it. “The dress code makes girls feel self-conscious, ashamed, and uncomfortable in their own bodies,” says Sunseri.
Yet Sunseri emphasizes that this isn’t where she and other students take the most issue. “It’s not really the formal dress code by itself that is so discriminatory, it’s the message behind the dress code,” she says, “My principal constantly says that the main reason for [it] is to create a ‘distraction-free learning zone’ for our male counterparts.” Woodford County is one of many districts across the country to justify female-specific rules with that logic, and effectively, to place the onus on girls to prevent inappropriate reactions from their male classmates. (Woodford County High has not responded to multiple requests for comment.)
Educators and sociologists, too, have argued that dress codes grounded in such logic amplify a broader societal expectation: that women are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention and that those wearing what could be considered sexy clothing are “asking for” a response. “Often they report hearing phrases like, ‘boys will be boys,’ from teachers,” says Laura Bates, a co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project. “There’s a real culture being built up through some of these dress codes where girls are receiving very clear messages that male behavior, male entitlement to your body in public space is socially acceptable, but you will be punished.”
“These are not girls who are battling for the right to come to school in their bikinis—it’s a principle,” she says.
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