Yes, School Dress Codes Are Sexist. But How Can We Fix Them?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how school dress codes are sexist and homophobic. I couldn’t agree more, but so far I haven’t seen any concrete proposals for actually addressing this in schools. Uniforms are a great solution, but many schools don’t want to enforce uniforms, and from my discussions with other parents and teachers it’s very clear that most people don’t think kids and teenagers should be able to wear whatever they want to school.

One of my favorite writers, Soraya Chemaly, wrote this excellent piece for Huffington Post (which I first read in SLUT), laying out exactly what is wrong with most school dress codes. But even she gets kind of vague at the part about how we could actually rewrite the dress codes.

“This isn’t to say girls should go to school wearing anything that strikes their fancy, no matter how skimpy. When their underwear is showing it’s not because they’re channeling Jean Paul Gaultier in an attempt to show how artificial the construction of gender is. There are times when girls reach an age when being sexy or sexual is just fine, but In the same way that they shouldn’t wear athletic clothes to go to a wedding, they shouldn’t wear clothes they’d wear, say, to a concert, when they go to school. I want my girls to be comfortable at school and respectful of their teachers and the learning environment. Boys, too. If this
means, as girls occasionally suggest to teachers, that a school talk to boys about not looking at girls’ legs if it makes them uncomfortable, then so be it. With uniforms, it should be even simpler.  The issue isn’t the rules per se, it’s how they’re constructed.”

But how should they be constructed? Does anyone have a proposal for how we should construct school dress codes without falling back on some amount of mandated skin coverage? And is there a way to mandate skin coverage in a non-sexist way?

Chemaly goes on to propose educating kids about the root problems—“cultural gender stereotypes, sexism and misogyny in media.” I totally agree, but realistically I don’t think that even the most progressive schools and parents would be willing to abandon dress codes completely in exchange for more education around sexism and homophobia. (I don’t think that’s what Chemaly is suggesting either.)

Everything else I’ve read on this topic gets decidedly vague around the part where we actually try to figure out a concrete solution.

In another HuffPo piece, ‘Why Sexist Dress Codes Have to Go,’ Jamie Rifkin ends up saying, “I’m not claiming to get rid of dress codes entirely. Students should still be expected to have reasonable body coverage…”

And Katie JM Baker wrote this Jezebel piece titled ‘Let’s Reinvent the ‘Don’t Be a Slut’ School Dress Code,’ but ends up asking ‘What does a non-sexist dress code look like? […] I’m honestly not sure.”

I’m honestly not sure either. But I would love to hear from anyone who has the answers…

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