Dress Codes and Sexist Stereotypes

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Dress codes are common in public and private schools, ostensibly promoting student well-being. For example, in College Station schools, the student handbook reads the district established the dress code “to teaching grooming and hygiene, prevent disruption, and minimize safety hazards.”


Dress Codes

What happens, however, when a seemingly neutral or innocuous dress code actually serves to perpetuate sexist stereotypes? Increasingly, researchers from around the world are examining this very issue.

Ariel Shiner, of Santa Clara University Law School, for example, questions why girls are prohibited from wearing shirts that show their shoulders, or wearing shorts that do not reach past the fingertips. Both pieces of clothing would be prohibited in College Station schools. She argues that such restrictions run contrary to the freedom of expression ensured by the 1st and 14th amendments in the US Constitution. Shiner notes that students do not forego their constitutional rights upon entering the school.

Other scholars, such as Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University, and Kris Newhall, of SUNY Cortland, have suggested that dress codes might violate Title IX. This is a law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational activities receiving federal funding. When the dress code differentially impacts girls, Title IX is likely violated.

As a final example,  Jessalyn Keller, from the University of Calgary, and her colleagues examined ways in which students resisted what they considered sexist dress codes. Use of social media was common. Girls in the study also noted the hypocrisy that frequently accompanied the dress codes, as girls were differentially penalized, relative to boys.

These examples show that dress codes might have unintended consequences, perpetuating sexist ideals. When this occurs, the districts might also be violating federal laws.