The sexualized messages
are sending to students
If you aren’t currently in high school, it’s probably been a while since you’ve read a student handbook. The dress code section, present in about 55% of US public high schools, contains a set of hotly debated policies. They are most commonly accused of being racist, sexist, reinforcing gender stereotypes, and promoting sexualization. This is the first piece in a forthcoming series where we examine how public high schools police bodies differently and attempt to add data to each of these conversations. Here, we’ll focus on the last issue: how dress codes sexualize students by analyzing the rules and their framing in 481 public high schools across the US.
In early 2017, writer Dana Schwartz posed a question to the Twitter-verse: “Ladies, when was the first time you were made to feel embarrassed and sexualized for what you wore?”
Ladies, when was the first time you were made to feel embarrassed and sexualized for what you wore? I was in 5th grade, shorts too short.— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) March 26, 2017
I thought of my earliest memories of this type of behavior—the times when I wasn’t aiming to be “sexy,” but was still perceived that way. I remembered the girls who were stopped outside of our middle school dance because their shoulders and underarms were bare. And being handed a detention slip because a small sliver of my torso was exposed. Like Schwartz, my earliest memories of feeling sexualized came from the adults who were enforcing my school’s dress code.
I like to imagine that their intent wasn’t malicious. I mean, it’s not like my school’s policy literally said:
But that is still the message that I received.
When it comes to exploring sexualization in dress codes, these hidden messages make the process difficult. Afterall, how do you quantify something that is implied? Following the lead of researchers in California and Washington DC, we collected data from hundreds of high schools to learn about what they prohibit and why these policies exist.
Body Parts to Hide
Although “dress codes” implies that they merely regulate the clothes that students can wear, we found that 77% of schools’ policies specifically prohibit the visibility of certain body parts. Those phrases often looked something like this:
Policies like these have recently come under scrutiny due to the sexual tone they communicate. At best, students receive the message that those body parts are bad, should be hidden, or are important to others. At worst, dress codes go so far as to turn whole people into a collection of inappropriate body parts to cover.
According to our analysis of 481 schools, these are the body parts that schools are most likely to hide from view.
I was expecting something like genitals to be number one, but only 6 schools (1%) explicitly ban them. Midriffs, on the other hand—the front part of your body between your chest and your waist—is banned in 71% of schools, making it the most banned body part by a long shot. Which raises the question: why?
The stomach and belly button are not inherently sexual body parts, as sex is not their primary function. Though, in Western culture, the midriff and navel (particularly those on female-presenting bodies), have a long history of being seen as taboo or indecent. Women couldn’t show their belly buttons on television until the 1970s or the streets of New York City until 1985. Somewhat ironically, hiding these body parts away gives them an air of mystery, ultimately increasing the sexual tension surrounding them. Arguments go on about whether a woman baring her midriff is fashionable, erotic, or attractive to those looking at her. But each of these arguments comes from the observer rather than the observed.
This outside critique of girls’ and womens’ bodies happens often enough that author Sady Doyle posited, “every woman has a moment when she realizes her body is public property.” We see this in social media, magazines, politics, sports, and even the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and naturally, it appears in high school dress codes.
Below, you can explore the individual body parts being policed in each school’s dress code.
This practice of commenting on someone else’s body and imposing sexuality upon them (whether they intended to be “sexy” or not) falls squarely into the American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of sexualization. And while the APA acknowledges that anyone can be sexualized, they suggest that girls are the most at risk.
Compounding the issue, some argue, is that by telling students that these body parts are important to others, schools reinforce the idea that those parts should be important to them too. And when things are important to us, we tend to be highly aware of them. Unfortunately, studies have shown that when people are consciously thinking about their appearance, they perform worse on various cognitive tasks like math tests and are more likely to experience eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
Clothes We Wear
Beyond hiding body parts, dress codes typically list a number of clothing items that students are not allowed to wear to school. The average dress code prohibits around 32 items (the maximum was 97). Here are snippets of what these policies look like:
Many school’s policies range from prohibiting bare feet or hats to spiked jewelry or promotions of alcohol. Since we are focused on dress codes’ role in sexualizing students, we’ll limit this particular exploration of clothing items to just those worn on your body. This includes any form of shirt, pants, shorts, skirts, dresses, and undergarments.
Note: If you are interested in other types of prohibited items (e.g., headwear, grooming practices, footwear, etc.) you can find all of that data here and we will be exploring it in more detail in forthcoming articles.
In our dataset, we found 15% of schools that prohibited items specifically for either “male” students or “female” students—phrasing that makes navigating these policies particularly difficult for transgender students or those outside the gender binary.
The remaining prohibitions, however, are simply addressed to “students” giving the implication that the rules will apply to all students evenly. But, in practice, banning something like “halter tops” primarily impacts folks shopping in the “girls” section of the store.
When looking at these policies through the lens of sexualization, it’s helpful to ask a few questions: which of these policies prohibit items that accentuate or reveal prohibited parts of the body? Who is most impacted by the sexualization-driven restrictions?
Let’s try to answer those questions by examining the clothing items banned in high schools.
Here we’ve arranged all of the clothing items based on how frequently they are banned.
You’ll find short shorts and skirts at the highest end alongside visible underwear.
On the opposite end, you’ll find items banned in fewer schools like spandex clothing, gym shorts, and the absence of underwear.
You may have noticed that almost all of these items reveal or accentuate parts of the body. In fact, there are only 4 (pajamas, loose clothing, very long shirts, and cutoff pants) that don’t.
Of the remaining 37 items that accentuate the body, 57% are primarily marketed in stores to girls, 38% to any gender, and only 5% are marketed primarily to boys. Rules that prohibit specific items due to their perceived sexiness (e.g., “short shorts”, “sheer clothing” etc.) impact students wearing clothing marketed to girls more than their peers. Though, not all clothes that accentuate the body do seem to be banned based on their perceived sexiness. Some, like “sagging pants” are restrictions steeped in racism, clearly aimed at boys of color.
Note: * the definition of “short” varies from school to school. The most common lengths for shorts, skirts, and dresses were “to the students fingertips” (53%), “longer than mid-thigh” (36%), and “longer than the knee” (11%). Another 33% didn’t specify a length, just prohibited “short” items of clothing. “Short” shirts refers typically to shirts that can’t be tucked in or touch the top of the pants. More details on calculations in the Methods section.
Some people posit that girl’s clothes are more regulated on the basis of “sexiness” because boys have fewer clothing options. After all, their shirts, pants, and shorts are all largely the same style.
What’s missing from that discussion are the messages that girls have been sent since childhood that their sexiness and self-worth are tied together. Clothing brands play into this message, creating clothing items for young girls that accentuate already-sexualized parts of her body in ways that boys clothes don’t.
In a study of clothes available for girls (sizes 8-14) in online stores, 41% of girls clothing in “tween” stores like Abercrombie Kids, were considered sexualized. These clothes wouldn’t meet the requirements of most dress codes we analyzed, meaning that it can be challenging for students shopping in the “girls” section to find “school appropriate” clothes. While I haven’t found a similar study on clothes sized for high school students, personal anecdotes from frustrated teens and parents that can’t find clothes to satisfy their school dress codes are easy to find.
The Words We Tell Our Students
Even after dress codes ban body parts and clothes that expose the body—a clear message that parts of you should be hidden—the words that dress codes use further reinforce this idea. Most schools offer a few sentences at the beginning of their dress code to justify its existence. Others explain the reasoning for rules when discussing why particular items are prohibited. Here are a few examples:
Words matter. Some dress codes are literally telling students that their bodies and modes of dress are distractions or linked to their value or self worth. When speaking specifically about how dress codes are sexualizing students, it is largely the female students who receive these messages.
We manually extracted the most common words used to offer any rationale for the dress code policies. Explore examples below.
Policies using phrases like “distract” or “disrupt” are in the vast majority, representing 76% of the schools in our dataset. The phrasing has not gone unnoticed by students. In 2014, students began using the hashtag #IAmNotADistraction in retaliation of policies just like these. The typical argument is that they are distracting their male classmates and, disturbingly, sometimes adult men.
Some suggest that dress codes that use words like these send a complex message to all students: girls are responsible for the way that others see them (and continuing that line of logic, what others do to them) and it relays to boys that they are not in control of their own actions and that others’ bodies are theirs to judge. If these are the lessons that students learn at an early age, it’s not a far leap to see why victims of sexual assault are often asked “what were you wearing?” as if their clothing choices excuse the violence they endured.
Sending troubling messages is only one problem with vague, coded language. When rules are open-ended, they allow for interpretation and create an opening for implicit bias to slip in. This is especially important when examining repercussions of dress codes outside the scope of sexualization, especially as a tool for racism.
Fifty percent of the schools we investigated state that the final determination of whether or not a student is violating the dress code will be subjective. Those clauses often look like this:
Although we don’t have data from the schools in our dataset about the enforcement of these subjective policies, previous research can give us an idea of how these policies can be influenced by bias.
Reports indicate that students who are “curvy” or “busty” are policed more than their less-curvy classmates. Similarly, studies have found that girls of color are stereotypically perceived as “hypersexualized,” “provocative,” and “not ladylike” compared to their white classmates and are disproportionately targeted in the enforcement of dress codes. They are found in violation of their school’s dress codes more often than their white classmates, even when both were breaking the rules.
This bias extends beyond the sexualization of students. Words like “clean”, “neat”, and “distracting” have been used to police Black boys and girls, removing them from class, threatening them with suspension, and literally cutting their hair all for wearing their hair the way it naturally grows out of their head. Similarly, words like “safe” have been used to regulate clothes that reinforce “[ideas of] criminality” like the hoodies, sagging pants, and oversized t-shirts worn primarily by boys of color. Ultimately, these vague words can and do play into the sexualization of students, but their effects are also much further-reaching. Racial bias, in particular, is pervasive in dress codes and the topic will be explored in more detail in a forthcoming article.
So What Do We Do?
Although they continue to fight against the sexualization of students in schools, some supporters are wondering where this particular dress code fight ends. Especially because research has shown that when women and girls wear “revealing” clothes they are viewed as less competent, intelligent, powerful, and have less agency than others.
Regan A. R. Gurung, author of two of the above studies, suggests that the issue is less with what people wear, and more with the mental link the observer makes between someone’s attire and their intelligence or competence. Basically, the sexualization present in dress codes is a symptom of a larger societal issue: sexism. And students seem to get that. In an interview, Maggie Sunseri, creator of Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code said, “It's about the message behind the dress codes. It’s not about just superficially what we’re wearing, it’s about what people are telling us that means about ourselves.”
While taking on ages of systemic sexism may seem like a daunting task, working with local schools to ameliorate the sexualizing messages in their dress code policies is a lot more manageable. The National Women’s Law Center has some suggestions for doing just that, and the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women (Oregon NOW) has created a model dress code policy to help schools create more equitable rules for all students.
As you’ve seen, the sexualization that lies inside high schools dress codes is complex, but it is also part of an even larger story about dress code policies. Here, we started to explore the data that is most readily available to us: dress code policies themselves. But we’re still missing large swaths of data (e.g., rates of enforcement) that are imperative to these discussions. Moving forward, we plan to explore how policies and fashion policing can profoundly impact students of color or create an unwelcome space for transgender students or those outside the gender binary. We’re looking for collaborators and folks who may want to be involved in adding data to these stories. If you are interested, check out the data, and send us a pitch. We want to hear from you.
Methods • Download the Data Here
All school handbooks were chosen for analysis opportunistically as follows:
Using the National Center for Education Statistic’s (NCES) search function for public schools, I collected a list of over 8,000 public high schools in the US. I limited the resulting schools to just those that had a web address listed in NCES. Accessing the homepage web content from each site, I searched for words like “handbook”, “dress code”, and “code of conduct”, filtering my list of schools to just those that contain one of the above phrases. Then, I manually visited the resulting (2,000+) websites in an attempt to find the dress code. Dress codes were disqualified from analysis if they: had a uniform policy, were not from the 2018-2019 school year, or represented magnet or boarding schools (according to the NCES).
Once the list of dress codes was compiled, I and two data assistants manually recorded every rule listed in each dress code, the words used in the dress code’s rationale, as well as any listed sanctions for breaking the dress code. Only items and body parts that were explicitly listed were included in this analysis. Some minor subjectivity came into play when combining similar phrases from different handbooks (ex. “midriff shirt” = “crop top”, “shirt with open sides” = “muscle shirt” etc.).
To define which items were marketed to girls, boys, or any student, we looked for each item or item attribute in the 5 most popular teen clothing brands’ websites: Nike, American Eagle, Adidas, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters. If items or styles appeared in more than twice as many stores for one gender over another, the item was considered to be primarily marketed to that gender.
Some data collected (e.g., sanctions for breaking the dress code, prohibited items not worn on the body — footwear, headwear, grooming, promotions of specific things, etc. — specific strap widths, specific length restrictions etc.) were not presented in this article. Those data are still available for public download and use here.
Looking for More?
In the larger conversation around school dress codes, the sexualization of students is simply one part. Luckily, some amazing work has been done focusing on this and other areas as well:
National Women’s Law Center and DC Students • 2018
Combining data from all but 3 of Washington DC’s public high school’s written dress code policies alongside the lived experiences of 21 black girls that attend/have recently attended those schools, this report explores the effect of dress code policies on black girls. The authors of this report also discuss the impact of uniform policies on families and suggestions for how educators and policymakers can improve dress codes.
Alyssa Pavlakis and Rachel Roegman • 2018
Pavlakis and Roegman surveyed an entire school’s student population (with a total of 384 responses) and 13 teachers to learn about how often students followed the dress code, were disciplined for breaking the policies, and their feelings about the dress code overall. They explore gender, race, and the intersection of the two.
Jaymie Arns • 2017
Through their Master’s Thesis, Arns dissects the dress codes in 56 public high schools in California (2016-2017 School Year) and how students at the intersections of gender and race are disproportionately targeted.
Edward Morris • 2005
Over the course of 2 school years, Morris observed and recorded the race, class, and gender influence on school disciplining of students’ bodies and dress in a Texas middle school.
Oregon NOW • 2016
The Oregon National Organization for Women (NOW) created a model student dress code “intended to address recent and escalating controversy and conversation both in Oregon and across the nation about overreaching and detrimental dress codes for some K-12 school students.
This project has been no small undertaking and it would not have been possible without the help of so many people. Thank you to my editor, Matt Daniels, for providing feedback on all (what feels like) 8493084 versions of this story. To Parker Young for helping me iterate through every angle for months, and to both Parker and Jan Diehm for the invaluable design assistance. To the many outside reviewers that read through drafts of this story and provided vital feedback. To the data assistants, Kait Thomas and Anna Houston, that helped unbury me from a pile of virtual student handbooks. And to the entire Pudding team who kept me going. 💖