School dress codes are often looked upon by students with disdain and disgust. After all, many of us still can’t understand the education system’s arbitrary fixation with bare shoulders.
However, recent news and research seem to point to a much more disturbing rationale behind these rules, as the enforcement of dress codes seem to particularly affect women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.
The National Women’s Law Center studied dress codes across the nation and found that they were disproportionately enforced on African American girls living in the Washington D.C. area. This statistic becomes increasingly vivid when we note cases such as that of Nicole Williams, the mother of a daughter in seventh grade. When her daughter wore ripped jeans to school, she was made to put duct tape over all areas in which her skin was exposed.
Williams reportedly received a call from her daughter who complained that the tape was irritating her skin. Williams commented on the school’s ridiculous handling of the situation, stating:
“The idea they came up with… to put duct tape on a child – when they clearly see bare skin – I believe they should have called me first and gave her the chance to change her clothes.”
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Not too long ago, a 13-year-old girl in South Africa was told that her hair, which she wears as a natural afro, was somehow inappropriate and needed to be “changed.”
While some people may be familiar with the issue of young women being policed for their sartorial choices, fewer may be aware of the particular prejudice faced by women of color in this arena. What’s more is that these oppressive, borderline abusive dress codes also affect numerous other groups. For example, there have been stories of Native American students being disciplined for wearing traditional hairstyles such as mohawks or long hair. According to Lambda Legal, LGBTQ students are also often targeted for their clothes at a higher rate than any of their other classmates, particularly when their clothes do not reflect rigid gender norms.
Sources suggest that the treatment of these students stems from an internalized bigotry that still exists within the educational system. Shauna Pomerantz, an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, explained the phenomenon, stating:
“Students of color are often seen as ‘hyper’ sexualized based on racial stereotypes, and LGBT students are often targeted for wearing elements of queer styles that may include piercings, short or dyed hair, and alternative clothing.”
The professor, who is the author of the book Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing The Part, also said:
“The main issue is that there is a certain kind of femininity that is seen as ‘normal’ or ‘correct.’ But if you dig deep you find that this kind of femininity correlates to a white, middle class, and straight ‘good-girl’ look. Schools need to get over the idea that there is a right way to look and act like a girl.”
Pomerantz is right to call out these dress codes. When we attempt to dictate to children how to dress or present themselves, we essentially remove their agency and teach them that their bodies are not their own. This idea can be particularly dangerous when it targets groups that already suffer from this sort of oppression in society. It is high time that we teach young people that their body, no matter how it is styled, is not a distraction.
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