Dress Codes in Schools and Free Expression for Girls and Women

Dress codes in public schools seem practical on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you find that these policies often target girls and underestimate boys.


A few years ago, girls at an Illinois middle school protested a ban on leggings and yoga pants. The argument in favor of the ban was that “boys found it distracting” and it would interfere with their ability to concentrate. Come again?

It would be one thing if we were simply restricting egregious displays of thong underwear, but sometimes these dress codes are absurdly out of bounds. In fact, one teen in Montana was sent home when she didn’t wear a bra to school. Again, the reason was that it made others uncomfortable. “What if bras make me uncomfortable?” Kaitlyn Juvik asked?1

In terms of enforcing these policies, girls who develop early are singled out more often and these girls are already at risk socially, often having higher percentages of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.2

Consider the message this sends to both boys and girls: boys cannot be trusted to control themselves at the site of a spaghetti strap, and girls are required to restrain their parts, even if it’s uncomfortable for them.

This can be hard for parents to reconcile in a world where girls are sexualized in the media at younger and younger ages, where the sexual assault rate is 1 in 5 for women in America, and where the political landscape has turned upside down to the point where men in power can outwardly brag about their exploitive escapades with women and face no repercussion. Objectification –and specifically self-objectification – are rampant in our culture.

We know the implications of sexism in our society when in comes to young girls.

A 2007 report on the sexualization of girls published in the American Psychological Association linked self-objectification to poor self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction and compromised cognitive function.2

Sadly, our girls are confusing sexual power with self-worth. Their bodies become their social currency rather than their minds or abilities. And so telling them to cover up is not only misguided, it doesn’t address the problem underneath.


What if instead of shaming our girls over their bodies, we put more energy into teaching our boys not to leer, catcall and harass?

And what about the implications for boys? This level of control over girl’s bodies and what they can and cannot wear shows boys that their behavior need not be modified, instead, girls should just be made to cover up.

Humans are highly suggestible, and if we give boys the signal that they cannot be trusted to mind their manners, they will act accordingly. There are very few scenarios in which the phrase “boys will be boys” is reinforcing good behavior.

No one is arguing that teens are in the middle of a wild hormonal ride, but if we educate them about their bodies, if we teach them direct communication, if we model self-awareness and respect, not only will boys behave better, but girls will feel less need to flaunt their parts.

We also know too, that when it comes to fashion, one mom’s trash is another daughter’s treasure, and they grow out of the excessive makeup, the gaudy jewelry and the impractical shoes. In the meantime, we can encourage them to be reasonable about their aesthetic and beyond our girls wearing something unsafe, we need to let them move through that phase without too much blowback from us.

If we are doing our jobs correctly as parents, teachers, and administrators, we won’t have to harp on our teens about their clothes. More importantly, we certainly won’t be limiting their freedom of expression simply based on some outmoded ideas about boys and girls.




  1. http://www.seventeen.com/life/school/news/a40839/parents-called-the-cops-on-boys-who-wore-bras-in-support-of-a-girl-punished-for-going-braless/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/14/opinion/the-battle-over-dress-codes.html

About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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