School Dress Codes and Sexism – Aimed at whom?

Gender stereotyping: discourse between contemporary beliefs and traditional customs

By Agnes Jeong

School dress regulations has always been a controversial existence, fuelling the constant debate on sexism. Society’s changing perceptions on gender inequality during the 21st century, has assisted in balancing gender power dynamics. Thus, discriminatory behaviour towards fe
males now create immense discourse between those who accept society’s shifting beliefs, and those who refuse to. Two ‘views’ journalism or opinion articles are Emily Lindin’s ‘Why Sexist Dress Codes Suck for Everyone’ and Laura Bates’ ‘How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture’. Although the articles portray their ideas in differing styles, they hold a mutual understanding that dress codes are sexist and thus, alterations should be made.

The constant reporting of struggles with school dress codes bring to light the negative effects and implications towards specifically females and transgender students. Dress regulations are considered a common feature of schools which aim to outline and describe what is unacceptable to wear. Some frequently cited inappropriate clothing are “short skirts, revealing tops, ripped or torn clothing, heavy chains and so forth” (Raby, 2010). Students that violate the imposed rules are often punished and deal with “discomfort, humiliation and shame” (Lindin, 2016).

dress-codesAlthough the anecdotes displayed on social media focus on the absurdity of dress code standards, the essence of this controversy lies on the arising concerns on “sex stereotyping and institutionalising sex discrimination” (Harbach, 2016). Due to the media’s focus on female students being directly affected by dress code regulations, majority of responses empathise with females and criticise the existing set of rules. However, conflicting opinions outline the claim that not only females, but all genders are being stereotyped and negatively impacted by the presence of regulations within schools. The constant exposure of issues concerning dress codes on the media, questions the absurdity of dress regulations and whether their existence is necessary.

Both articles negatively portray the issue of school dress codes which reflects the popular opinion of society. Bates’ piece explicitly expresses her strong feminist opinion on this issue, focusing on the inaccurate message that is being taught to students. Although Lindin is also an active feminist, her article provides readers with an objective view of school dress regulations and places emphasis on sexist actions against other genders, not only female students. Both articles are published on renowned platforms that ensure that their piece would be read by a large audience. The articles attempt to persuade their audience in differing ways but share the belief that school dress codes are sexist and something should be done to fix it.

These articles address the stereotypes in society that have always determined what clothes were deemed appropriate for genders. Since the late 20th and early 21st century, the media has made society aware of the strict regulations that deal with ‘new’ styles resulting in girls’ fashion being too “sexual or aggressive” (Pomerantz, 2007). Media channels, especially social media, has become a substantial platform in which those affected, are able to spread their personal “reportings on battles over public school dress codes” (Harbach, 2016). The developing presence of the media undeniably plays a significant role in defining the “roles and behaviours… most approved of and valued in society” (Ross, 2012, p.366).

The heavily publicised discourse surrounding the issue of dress codes, is claimed to have reproduced “dominant and oppressive forms of gender and sexuality” (Pomerantz, 2007). Feminist post-structural examinations conducted by Pomerantz (2007) reveals how the dress code policies identified girls as “irresponsible, deviant and in need of help.” Often, the imposed regulations are justified through the criticising of female students and how dressing inappropriately is “disrespectful toward oneself and others” (Raby, 2005). However, the absurdity and contradictory nature of this controversy has resulted in heavy media coverage and sparked much heated debate. The articles focus primarily on the sexist intents of dress codes to all genders and further questions whether its presence increases sexualisation within society.

Lindin criticises the existence of the dress regulations and provides her readers with evaluative claims and recommendations. Published on Teen Vogue magazine, Lindin is well aware of her audience being primarily female students. Her title and by-line, “Why Sexist Dress Codes Suck for Everyone” and “We need to keep speaking out against them”, explicitly reveals her opinion on this matter. From her title, it is evident she is informing readers that not only females but males are being affected by sexism. She then recommends to “keep speaking out,” reflecting the assumption that majority of readers will be holding a strong disapproval of dress codes and actions against the issue have already taken place.

Lindin’s disapproval of this issue is understandable due to her active participation in feminist rights. Creating the UnSlut Project, Lindin hopes that her own diary entries that she has kept since her 6th-grade memory of being called a “slut,” would aid in providing other young girls some perspective on sexist remarks. Further information on the UnSlut Project can be seen here: http://www.unslutproject.com/

Although she understands that the majority of her readers would be able to relate to this issue, Lindin positions readers to recognise the true purpose of dress codes and the broader spectrum of genders that are affected. The article begins by claiming that “not all dress codes are harmful” to demonstrate how the initial existence of dress codes did not intend to “feel like a sexist imposition.” She aims to provide readers with a valid and understandable reason for regulations through her objective approach and comparability to “unwritten ‘dress codes’ in different areas of life.” Lindin mentions the dress codes that exist “for different work settings” and “many upscale restaurants” which encourages the readers to believe that school dress codes shouldn’t be demolished entirely but altered.

In order to support her claims that dress codes are sexist, Lindin provides the supporting justification that all genders are being stereotyped due to dress regulations. Although codes were imposed to regulate dress standards, abuse of power has led to them being “deeply sexist both in the way they’re enforced and in the logic behind creating them in the first place.” Lindin ethically appeals to her readers by placing emphasis on the sexist intentions that were existent when initially creating the rules. This shows the underlying assumption sexist actions should not be executed and the way in which rules are created and enforced must be for the good of society. Although this idea may be heavily supported by her readers, the claim may be considered a drastic slippery slope as it assumes that the regulations were made with the intentions to solely stereotype and sexualise genders.

Specifically, Lindin aims to inform her readers, an audience predominantly young girls, that dress codes are in fact impacting male students as well. Her sarcastic tone when referring to boys reflects the opinions of those who fail to view that all genders are being affected. She claims “I’m a feminist and I care about how school dress codes hurt straight, cisgender boys.” Her emphasis on boys that are “straight, cisgender” demonstrates her belief that her audience does not perceive males to be concerned by this issue. Lindin stresses how the existence of dress codes have shaped the expectations on boys so low and we associate them with “harass, grop(ing), and even assault.” However, this image has been so grounded within society’s perceptions that “we rarely hold them accountable” for their actions. The article demonstrates how society’s acceptance of negative traits and their ignorance to fix them is sexist to those being blamed, the females, as well as those who are being stereotyped, the males. Lindin promotes to her audience the drastic assumption that all male students are distracted by the female body to the extent in which they behave inappropriately. Although this claim is radical, it informs readers of the existing stereotypes on male students.

Lindin also repeatedly stresses her negative perception of dress codes and its tendency to stereotype sexes through her use of overtly evaluative words. An example would be how she asserts those targeted by dress codes experience “discomfort, humiliation, and shame.” Female students must encounter “ordeals of being scrutinised and judged” and when determined to be inappropriately dressed, are made to wear “shame suits” (Harbach 2016). The article enables readers to empathise with those being targeted and portrays schools as placing more importance in dress than education. This implies that schools are reinforcing immoral messages to students and encourages them to conform to the stereotypes that exist within society.

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To conclude, Lindin blatantly claims her recommendation that “our voices and our actions” should be utilised to “make it clear that we are people – not distractions.” As she assumes her audience shares her beliefs on this matter, she repeatedly asks them to continue “standing up for ourselves.” She is able to persuade her readers by her repeated use of “Let’s” which urges as well as includes her audience within her claim.  Therefore, Lindin communicates the idea that current dress codes violate universal ethical values on the topic of sexism.

Bates’ article similarly shares Lindin’s negative perception of school dress codes however expresses her opinion more explicitly. Evident by her title, “How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture,” the article is evaluative as well as causal, claiming that school dress codes are the catalyst for the existence of rape in society. Bates utilises strong negative diction such as “shame” and “perpetuate rape” to persuade her audience in which she assumes does not stand on the same page with her. Being published by one of the leading magazines, Bates believes the readers of Time Magazine would have opposing opinions from her prior to reading the article. The issue may be considered irrelevant to most readers who are mostly higher educated individuals attending office positions. In order to share and thus convert their perceptions, she repeatedly stresses on the issue’s importance. She claims “the school dress code debate will be dismissed by many for being minor or unimportant, but it is not.”

Like Lindin, Bates holds a passionate stance on feminism and sexism. She is the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project as well as the author of ‘Everyday Sexism’. She aims to take a step towards gender equality with her project. Her feminist background is reflected throughout the article with her strong negative opinion on the existence of school dress codes. If interested, further information on The Everyday Sexism Project can be read here: http://everydaysexism.com/.

Although Lindin expresses that school dress codes are sexist towards all genders, Bates focuses on the “strong sense of injustice” that is experienced by girls. Her primary claim is that school dress codes teach students the wrong message. To justify this, Bates compares the fundamental principles that are assumed to be taught in schools with what school dress codes are teaching students. Distinctly in the first paragraph, the article lists some of the “most powerful and lasting ideas about the world” such as “Hard work pays off. Success comes from working together. Girls’ bodies are dangerous and harassment is inevitable.” Bates adopts emotive language such as “dangerous” and “inevitable” to mock schools’ beliefs that certain clothing are “’too distracting’ for boy students” (Harbach 2016). The blatant negative attitude fuels Bates’ evaluative presumption and reflects a slippery slope as she implies schools have created dress codes because of this single belief. The article stresses on this message to outline the underlying assumption that the ideas that we learn from school are responsible in shaping the beliefs of children.

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To entice her audience in which she assumes are opposing her, Bates utilises a sarcastic tone to place emphasis on school dress codes and their inability to celebrate difference. The article claims that it feels “like such ‘codes’ are less about protecting children and more about protecting strict social norms and hierarchies that refuse to tolerate difference or diversity.” This aims for an emotive response, specifically anger, from parents as it implies schools are not protecting students and limiting their expressing of self-identity. Similar to Lindin, Bates aims to produce a negative response from the audience in order to gain support on this issue. By portraying schools in a negative light, it raises the question of whether schools are teaching students the appropriate ethical norms.

Bates further instils her disapproval of school dress codes by stressing on the ironic nature of their existence and purpose. The problem that she has identified with school dress codes is the unjust treatment towards female students. She claims that there is “a lack of any attempt to discipline boys for harassing behaviour” which shares with her readers the idea that girls are being regulated for the behaviour of male students. Bates expresses her disbelief of the way in which schools deal with inappropriate sexual behaviour towards women, as they dismiss testimonies with comments such as ‘he just likes you’ or ‘boys will be boys.’ These quotes are expressed in quotation marks within the article to emphasise the hypocritical and absurd acts of schools. Dress codes are most commonly justified by claims that inappropriate dress distract others, does not fit with the school’s image and is “disrespectful toward oneself and others” (Raby, 2005). By directly pointing out the flaws in the school regulation system, Bates persuades her readers with sufficient evidence.

Overall, these articles provide a strong negative perception of school dress codes and how it impacts students. The conclusions reached by both authors address the inappropriateness of the implicit messages that regulations teach children. By observing the differing styles of the articles, it is evident that society still remains divided; between those who accept emerging contemporary beliefs and those who are determined to practice traditional customs. The majority of responses towards this issue are in fact negative and some are more passionate than others. However, some perceptions remain objective in order to provide society with methodical and justifiable reasons on the presence of school dress codes.

 

References

Castillo, A 2015, The Sexism of School Dress Codes, digital image, The Atlantic, viewed 31 October 2016

Gaille, B 2016, Brandon Gaille, accessed 30 October 2016, <http://brandongaille.com/43-distressing-time-magazine-demographics/>

Harbach, M 2016, ‘Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public school dress codes’, University of Richmond Law Review, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 1039-1062

Lake, R 2012, Judgements, digital image, Tumblr, viewed 31 October 2016

Larkin D 2014, Shame Suit, digital image, ABC News, viewed 31 October 2016

Pomerantz, S 2007, ‘Cleavage in a Tank Top: Bodily Prohibition and the Discourses of School Dress Codes’, The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, vol. 53, no. 4, pp. 373-386

Raby, R 2010, ‘Tank Tops Are Ok but I Don’t Want to See Her Thong’, Youth & Society, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 333-356

Ross, K 2012, The Handbook of Gender, Sex and Media, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, UK

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