Do school dress codes discriminate against certain groups?


Ellie Kauffman



Mallory Johnston was suspended when she broke her school’s policy that prohibits bra straps showing, in protest. She wore this:

Mallory Johnston (right) with Grace Wood (left) wearing what got them in trouble. ( Courtesy of Grace Wood)

Looks like a regular outfit for a girl to wear to school right? Her administration didn’t think so. They suspended her, something that colleges can see on a transcript, because it could be too distracting for her male peers.

Lizzy Martinez, a 17 year old junior in Florida, spent her weekend in the blazing hot sun. By the time school rolled around, it hurt her sun burnt skin to put on her bra.

Comfort in mind, Lizzy went to school that day without her bra. However, she made sure to wear something that wouldn’t attract attention to her chest. Instead of this no-bra decision being ignored and treated like no big deal, it resulted in her getting called out and examined by faculty. She wore this:

Lizzy Martinez (center) wearing what got her in trouble.

Lizzy went on to tweet, “I decided not to wear a bra today and got pulled out of class bc one of my teachers complained that it was a ‘distraction to boys in my class.’ My school basically told me that boys’ education is far more important than mine and I should be ashamed of my body.”

A high school senior was told to retake her yearbook picture because she wore something that slightly showed her shoulders. She protests saying that the sexualization of girls bodies was unacceptable.

Another teenager was told she did not uphold the school dresscode by being “busty” and “plus size” while wearing a blouse and jeans.

The fact that girls have to feel like this and are talked to like this all the time all over the country is despicable.

There has been a nationwide uproar in the presence of situations similar to these. And it is not just stories of white people or females. Different people all around the country have shared experiences of dress codes singling them out because of their identities. It brings up a larger question: do dress codes discriminate?

Many have argued that discriminatory ideology is embedded in school dress codes, which results in double standards for many minority groups. This includes women, different body types, people of color, and the LGBT community. But what evidence suggests these views?


Dress codes can be traced back to the 1920s and ‘30s, and ever since then there has been mixed views on it. First, we can look at the obvious and most basic discrimination in dress code: gender.  Females have always been treated as second class citizens.

“In the U.S., over half of public schools have a dress code, which frequently outline gender-specific policies.”

According to iSchool teacher Mr. Jones, “You cannot treat half of a student body differently than the other half for a reason that has nothing to do with their behavior or their academic performance and has everything to do with that gender identity and their bodies.”

This sheds light on an unpleasant reality that the rules in school dress codes often target female students. They did this to Lizzy and made her feel like her own body was not acceptable to wear to school, and they do the same thing to so many girls around the country.

Samantha O’Sullivan, an activist high school student in DC, has called out the ideology behind dress codes. She says, “Dress codes are based on the assumption that girls’ bodies are distractions that need to be covered up. That it is our responsibility to ensure our exposed shoulders…are not ‘distracting’ to our male classmates, as not to impede their learning.”

“My principal constantly says that the main reason for [it] is to create a ‘distraction-free learning zone’ for our male counterparts.” This entire justification is based on sexism and victim shaming because it presumes, and says to girls, that they are responsible for keeping boys under control, rather than that boys are responsible for their own behavior.

We have been told that dress codes, even if not directly, that we are the ones responsible for males focusing, and that if they are not focusing it is our fault for having our bodies exposed.

Because of this, dress codes have been linked by many to rape culture and victim blaming. This is because of the idea that a women is to blame for unwanted male attention based on what she is wearing.

Girlhood expert Shauna Pomerantz of Brock University says that “‘dress coding’ students for being distracting is a form of victim-blaming.”

Senior Talya Matz agrees, saying, “It’s ridiculous that girls should be told to cover up if the reason is so boys can focus better.”

Junior Margareta Stern adds that “it’s a kind of body shaming.” Girls all around the country feel singled out by dress codes, but they are not the only gender being wrongly affected by this common policy.

Sexist dress codes can also send a bad message to men. Pomerantz adds,“It is offensive to men. It suggests they don’t have the ability to talk to a female student without going wild.”

This brings up a reversed sexism in dress codes. Not only is it discriminating against girls and their bodies, but it is assuming that all guys are uncontrollably attracted to girls.

Not only is this offensive to straight males, but it is hetero normative to assume the boys all like girls.

Freshman Jay Gottesman brought up an interesting point. They said, “Your phone is a distraction, an object is a distraction, a person…Something that a separate person is wearing is only a distraction when you’re the one being creepy. If your distracted by a slightly shorter skirt that’s kind of on you.”

This highlights two important issues. Firstly, anything can distract anyone. Objects, noises, etc. You cannot ban car horns because they distract students, so you cannot ban exposed shoulders.

The second point is that if you are distracted by a female’s skin showing then that is for you to control, not for the female to solve. Many people have argued that if we can get that idea through, then there won’t be a culture of victim blaming.

Sophomore Ronald Noel Jr says that “a lot of the stuff that dress code tries to prevent is caused by the society that we have,” and that “instead of trying to make women dress more conservative we should be trying to make men understand their boundaries and know what is right.”

He thinks–and so do many–that we should be enforcing self control in males and not shame and fear in young women.


The counterargument to dress codes is that they are useful in maintaining a sense of professionalism and that they are an equalizer.

iSchool senior Alison Nolan says, “The whole point of having a dress code is to keep things with a sense of professionalism and also being respectful to people of all race and religious affiliations and genders.”

She also says, “I’m for having a dress code, but within reason. Girls wearing spaghetti straps during summer months wasn’t allowed because their bra straps would show. That’s kind of ridiculous.”

She agrees with dress codes to a certain extent. She sees how they are useful, but when they go to far they can be discriminatory.

Another point to consider is that girls can also get distracted. If a boy is wearing a tank top and his biceps are exposed, a girl could potentially be distracted. Dress codes rarely ever use language to prevent males from exposing themselves, and this confirms a double standard.


Among women, there is a new and intricate double standard that has emerged. Body types. There has been much criticism to dress codes for targeting specific body types and being more lenient with other ones.

Talya says “Some girls can fly under the radar and then other girls will immediately get called out. Like some girls who are shorter or don’t have as big boobs as other girls.”

While Mr. Jones,says, “I’ve heard female students say that curvier girls and larger girls get unfairly targeted and they can be showing the same amount of skin as a girl with a smaller frame or a less curvy frame and they get called out for it disproportionately.”

Too many people are feeling the impact of this bias and double standard.

Freshman Lila Wolk says,“Girls who are flatter chested could wear a tube top and teacher wouldn’t say anything but girls who are bigger than the short skinny archetype were told to put a t shirt on to cover themselves up.”

Alison adds that “height and arm length obviously factor into it.”

Different girls fit into different clothing differently, so to ban specific clothing like shorts up to a certain length can impact people differently and unfairly.

Junior Alicia Mouyal agrees, saying, “I’m tall so a lot of things that other people wear look shorter on me. It’s just because my legs are longer.”

Alison adds that “larger girls that would want to where a tank top or a low cut shirt or mesh top with something under it would get dress coded and then I would see girls that wear size 0 very skinny, very small and they would let it slide because we’ve been trained to say oh that’s normal. When it becomes sexualized it becomes a problem.”

Nikki Belsham says, “The rule should be based on the clothes, not how they fit, because it’s different for each person.”

Junior Marly Barry says, “If you’re bigger than they will police you more and say you can’t wear a crop top but if your skinnier it’s no big deal.”

The fact that not one, not two, but millions of girls can share experiences like these proves that it is definitely something that is happening. Alison says that “there are double standards in our own minds” and to a certain extend it couldn’t be more true.

Alicia says that “Someone could say my shirt is too low cut but someone with smaller boobs would be fine,” and that “I expect to be dress coded because of the way I look.” Nobody should feel that way right?

She goes on to say that “People with smaller breasts or less curvy will be allowed to wear more things,” and that “these things affect the way I’m perceived not only by the school board but by society.”

Many argue that dress codes feed into a societal problem of judgment and appearance based on discrimination and that if we get rid of these rules, then we are sending a greater message.


Now that we have explored the gender discrimination’s of dress code, it’s time to move to the racial bias that dress codes can feed into.

Even staying with the topic of women, there is a racial double standard among them.

O Sullivan says that “the problem begins with a culture which celebrates thinness and hyper-sexualizes Black bodies,” and that “white counterparts with thinner waists and flatter chests walk free, free from ridicule and body-shaming, free to dress their bodies in they choose.”

This can make sense because society tends to see curves and bigger breasts and butts to be arousing and women of color can naturally be more curvy. This leads to a double standard that dress codes feed into.

She continues to say that “when clothes fit differently on different bodies, implicit biases, that are held by school faculty members, will materialize in discriminatory dress code policies that hurt Black girls the most.”

High school student Maddie Reeser says, “My white friends rarely get sent to the office, but my black friends do quite often.”

Another student in Reeser’s school said she brought up this issue to a male administrator, who told her it was “because white girls don’t have as much to show.” The student was reportedly very uncomfortable with this comment, and felt the issue was not recognized.

But there is not just a bias towards females of color.

Marci Kutzer, a teacher, recognizes the double standard among men. She says “targeting styles of clothing that are mostly associated with a particular minority group is discriminatory. When styles such as ‘sagging pants’ are the issue, we are putting a burden predominantly on black males.”

Kutzer raises the idea that “dressing as most white young men do seems to be what is encouraged.’ She calls this the “white male default.” Alicia agrees. She says we are indirectly told to “dress white, look white.”

Sophomore Nikole Rajgor says that “Sometimes how people people of color dress or act are seen as ghetto or there’s more of a racial bias against it. We use European beauty standards to pass as what can be professional.”

Many think that a plus side to dress codes is that it is an equalizer for people, but Mr. Jones thinks that “Anytime we ask everyone to dress the same we are ignoring different experiences of various students and what they value as aesthetically pleasing. It has the potential to fall along racial and ethnic lines.”

Senior Jayvin Espinal says,“As a society we are more inclined to think of minorities as being problematic/dangerous. Dress code was set in that mentality.” He has been affected by this personally.

He shares that “the minute I put on a beanie I was told to take off my hat yet the white person next to me didn’t have to.” He says, “I try to confront them saying I see several white peers of mine don’t do that, they don’t have to take off their beanie. The minute I decide to put on my hoodie because I felt I was too cold it was an immediate problem.”

Alicia adds that “White people wear the same things but they got dress codes for being too ghetto while white people where the same”

The more we enforce dress codes, the more potential there is to cause upset and inequality for students of color.


While someone’s sexuality is not something you can see just by looking at what they are wearing, clothing is very gendered.

So who does this affect exactly? Mr. Jones says it is “Any queer person who bends the rules of gender norms.” How do school dress codes affect them? He says it “puts you into a box that you don’t want to be put into… usually dress codes are gender specific.”

Many schools around the US have tried to prevent LGBTQ youth from wearing their preferred attire to prom, homecoming, graduation, etc. Dress codes have historically made students conform to traditional gender roles, which puts gender non conforming youth at an unfair disadvantage.

Dress codes have the ability to limit people’s gender expression and categorize them with a strong binary, that not everyone wants to follow.

Alison says it well, “Older dress codes have it sectioned off into boys or girls and it forces people to pick a side and pick a set of rules instead of doing what’s comfortable for them. They have to decide for themselves what’s masculine, whats feminine.”

The Atlantic points out that “Transgender students have been sent home for wearing clothing different than what’s expected of their legal sex.” This affects millions of people, and needs to be brought to our attention.

“According to a recent GLSEN study, 19 percent of LGBT students were prevented from wearing clothes that were thought to be from another gender and that number was even higher for transgender students, nearly 32 percent of whom have been prevented from wearing clothes that differed from those designated for their legal sex.”

It is important to recognize that certain dress codes can be very effective for some people but, when they attempt to make a environment of professionalism they often put trans and gender non conforming students in a bad place by making them wear something that doesn’t match their identity.

“The discipline is sometimes informed by teachers’ personal biases while in other cases, school policies discriminate against transgender or gender non-conforming students expressions of their gender identity

One might think that we shouldn’t get rid of something just because it hurts the small population of transgender or gender non conforming people.

However, the fact of the matter is that not only is it a bigger population than many might think, but it sends the wrong message to cis people to. It says there is only binary.

Of course, it also hurts them through female discrimination, body type double standards, and race.


So you have read pages and pages about the different ways in which people have said school dress codes can be damaging and discriminatory.

So why should you care?

What can you do?

As Mr. Jones puts it, “We need to err on the side of caution to the greatest extent possible in making sure everyone gets treated the same whatever their body type, their gender, or gender identity.”

Even if dress codes don’t affect you personally, there is a great chance they are affecting someone else. We must make sure all people are treated equally and feel comfortable. Especially in a learning environment such as school.

We need to make sure we are sending the right message. Because at the end of the day, the people who hear this message, and the people who are the future, are young people.

Recognizing the potential of discriminatory ideology behind school dress codes is the first step in sending the message that we are all equal.

As Ronald puts it, “culture shouldn’t be allowing this to happen.” So why let it continue to happen?

Why tell young boys that they are entitled to young girls bodies?

Why tell young girls that it is THEIR job to keep boys sexually under control?

Why tell young boys that they should all be attracted to girls?

Why tell victims of sexual misconduct that they should have been dressed conservatively?

Why tell young girls with curves that their bodies are too provocative to wear to school?

Why tell young girls of color that their bodies are too sexual to wear to school?

Why tell young people of color that they are problematic and dangerous?

Why tell young people of color to dress white?

Why tell young trans and gender non conforming people to stay on a side or to pick a side?

Stop attempting to erase people’s identities.

How about we don’t. As a human being, some could argue that it is our moral and civil duty to look out for everyone. So do it.

Talk to your principles. Your teachers. If you witness someone being singled out unfairly, bring it to their attention.

Bring this to people’s attention so we can all be ourselves and learn and live without unnecessary oppression.