It was August in the US, and the school year had just started, when one parent received an unexpected phone call.
Stacie Dunn had been summoned to Woodford County High School because her teenage daughter had been caught violating the dress code. But the offense left Dunn flabbergasted.
She arrived to find her daughter in a pretty ordinary ensemble: a cardigan, tank top and jeans. The trouble, administrators indicated, lay with her daughter’s exposed collarbone. Bare shoulders and naked collarbones are outlawed under Woodford High’s dress code. Students who violate these rules can receive detention–or, after multiple violations, be suspended from school entirely.
Dunn was outraged. “Parents are being called away from their important jobs, and students are missing important class time because they are showing their collarbones,” she wrote on the social media site Facebook, attaching a picture of her daughter in the offending outfit. “Something needs to change!”
Across the US, schools like Woodford are coming under increased scrutiny for their dress codes. Some say the rules disproportionately target young women and members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. On Oct 20, the Atlantic magazine even zeroed in on certain dress codes as being outright “sexist”.
Dress codes vary by school district and are often applied at the discretion of teachers and school administrators. Yoga pants and skinny jeans are banned in some institutions, and not in others. Certain dress codes also require pants and skirts to fall to knee-length.
Critics point out that these rules apply almost exclusively to feminine attire. Women’s clothes are generally cut to be more fitted and shorter, while men’s clothes are longer and baggier. In practice, that means more women will be caught violating dress codes. The New York Post reported that, last year, one school in Staten Island, New York, handed out 200 dress code detentions in two weeks–90 percent of which went to female students.
Some school administrators argue they are simply upholding a professional standard of dress, to prepare their students for their future careers. But others have told students that their clothes present a “distraction” to others. That logic has come under fire.
The “distraction” argument is objectifying, critics say. It caters to the notion that exposed skin is an invitation for criticism or sexual advances. It even launched a trending hashtag on American social media: #IAmMoreThanADistraction.
But some teens have taken their protests further, employing creative techniques to build public support. Students at Charleston County School of the Arts drew inspiration from The Scarlet Letter, a book from their high school reading list. In September, they wore the letter “A” on their clothes, just like the novel’s heroine did as punishment for her sexual behavior. The book is a biting indictment of the US’ puritanical values.
Certain schools have chosen to reevaluate their dress codes, with input from parents and students. Even Woodford County High School–home of the “collarbone” ban–is reconsidering its policies this month. But, at least for now, the dress code debate is far from over.