Dress to Oppress


Graphic by Johanna Wong

By Markita Schulman

The Tamalpais Union High School District’s “dress and grooming” policy, available in the student planner and online, reads, in part, that “appropriate dress and grooming contribute to a productive learning environment. Students have the right to make individual choices from a wide range of clothing and grooming styles, but they must not present a health or safety hazard or a distraction which would interfere with the education process as determined by the school site administration.” The policy identifies specific guidelines but no consequences for a perceived violation, and the online version is difficult to find. It is not surprising that many students say that they didn’t even know Tam had a dress code until they were told they were breaking it.

Even if the policy were well publicized, its provisions are so vague that it is impossible to determine precisely what attire is prohibited, making compliance difficult and, worse, inviting subjective and discriminatory enforcement.

To my knowledge, Tam’s dress code has not been applied disproportionately or unfairly to minority groups that are often targets of discrimination. The policy is, however, applied differently depending students’ genders and body types.

Tam’s dress code primarily affects female students, despite the fact that the policy itself makes no explicit statements about gender. The majority of rules that actually discuss a particular type or article of clothing pertain to traditionally female clothing. The policy specifically states, “Short-cropped and low-cut tops which expose one’s stomach or chest and extremely short shorts/skirts are not appropriate.” The dress code does include some gender-neutral specifics regarding shoes, jewelry, clothing with writing on it, exposed underwear, etc., but there are no rules that appear to only apply to male students.

Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any federally funded education program activity, includes a section about “disparate impact.” Disparate impact is essentially when a law or policy that seems neutral actually disproportionately affects one group. By limiting what one historically disadvantaged group (women) can or cannot wear, the Tam dress code exerts a disparate impact.

Tam’s dress code teaches conformity and implicitly sexist values, neither of which has a place in a school, which should foster acceptance and individualism. Some proponents of dress codes argue that they teach students the concept of situational appropriateness—that there’s a difference between funeral and beach outfits. But it is at least equally important that students learn how to express and reflect their individual identity in a range of situations. A dress code will only lead to resentment; increased freedom, including the freedom to make mistakes, will help teach how to adapt, rather than to conform.

Teenage years are a time of exploration and self-expression as we examine our developing identities. Clothing is one way of expressing oneself and one’s sexuality. A school policy that labels certain—usually female—body types parts as inappropriate, inhibits an important element of girls’ emerging identities. Some students, with no intention of sexual expression, can find themselves sexualized by their school or even specific teachers, administrators, or staff members, and punished for being perceived as sexual. Other students who wear clothing as an expression of their sexuality are told that this natural and integral part of themselves is shameful and worthy of punishment.

Tam’s policy includes a prohibition against clothing that might pose a “distraction” to peers. On its face, this seems a commendable goal. But in the context of ambiguous guidelines targeting both “revealing” clothing and the way that clothing looks on different bodies (Bustier girls are targeted, even if they are wearing the same clothing as another student with a different body type.), it is evident that the underlying concern is that students’ bodies will be a “distraction.” The policy enforces demeaning sexual stereotypes on both male and female students.

When students are disciplined because exposing certain parts of their bodies might lead to other students having difficulty focusing, the responsibility of students to focus in class is shifted to those—mainly female—students whose bodies the school considers a distraction. Those students, mostly male, are invited to blame the female students for their own short-comings—in this case, the inability to focus in class. This implies that the male student’s education is more valuable than that of females whose responsibility it is, under the dress code, to make sure the boys can focus. There is no penalty for objectifying or sexualizing the female students.

This type of thinking contributes to a culture of victim-blaming. There is an eerie parallel between saying that a girl is at fault when her clothing leads to boys “distraction” in class and saying that a girl is at fault when her clothing leads to her rape. It underestimates the ability of all students to treat each other with basic respect and instills the idea that we can blame victims for our failings.

If a school can tell you how to dress based on its own arbitrary standards, the implication is that you don’t own or control your body; they do. Tam’s dress code should be abolished because students have not been adequately informed of rules that are overly vague and lend themselves to subjective, discriminatory enforcement, and the policy as a whole is based on conformity and implicit sexism. This is an opportunity for the administration to listen to its students’ concerns and create policies that are fair to and accepting of all students.

Graphic by Johanna Wong
Graphic by Johanna Wong