They’re Just Shoulders: the Underlying Sexism of Dress Codes

Student with shoulders blurred.

Unsanctioned clothing sanitized for your protection / Photographer: Meg Waage

There are countless things wrong with today’s society. So many things need to change that it often makes small things seem trivial, but more often than not, change is won through a compilation of small victories rather than one big battle. It is no secret that sexism continues to plague our society; however, some people do not seem to realize to what extent it is true. Simple things that we do not even contemplate continue to hold us to a rigid standard of genders, even as we attempt to leave this behind us. The issue of the dress code is often skewed, as it is easy to purposely misunderstand the intentions of those who combat it.

In schools around the country (to be clear, Orcas Island High School is not included in this original grouping), strict dress codes are put in place for girls, and often those who break it are publicly shamed. There have been countless photos uploaded by girls of the shirts they are forced to wear if they are dress-coded to shame them for their infringement.

This issue is not one pertaining only to teenagers, but children in elementary and middle school as well. For picture day, an elementary girl wore a dress of an appropriate length with a modest neckline. However, she was told to change her “inappropriate” dress because one could see the entirety of her arms and the sides of her shoulders. This case is not anything spectacular, but anecdotes can convey more to the average human than statistics can.

What is the real issue? It is the whole attitude. It teaches girls that they are a thing to be objectified. When a girl is told to change because her outfit is “distracting”, you are telling her that her education should be put on hold to put males at ease. It also does a disservice to boys because it teaches them that they do not have to be held accountable for their own actions. If a boy is distracted by a girl, it is her fault and her job to cover it up. This is the kind of thinking that can lead to statements like “she should not have been wearing that”, or “she should have known better than to go there or to have been drinking”. We are teaching girls that they are not as important, and teaching boys they do not have to be responsible.

While OHS may not be particularly bad in comparison to other schools, it cannot be completely excused from the narrative. In the school handbook, two things are banned: spaghetti straps and being able to see underwear. This seems reasonable. However, there is something else: a paragraph stating that teachers have the right to dress-code students for indecent dress. This begs questions like what constitutes “indecent” and when have students crossed the line?

There are two unwritten but widely accepted rules that set the standard in our school: the “two-finger” rule and the “length-of-arm” rule. The “two-finger” rule states that tank top straps have to be wider than two fingers. The “length-of-arm” rule says that no skirt or shorts may be shorter than your arms when straightened by your side. Again, these are seemingly unproblematic rules. However, whom, in today’s society, when considering accepted fashion, do these rules apply to? The school has created two dress code rules for the female half of the student body, and none for the male. Realistically, these rules (barring spirit week) are very unlikely to be broken by male students, considering that male fashion is quite different from accepted female fashion.

This brings forward another issue: social standards for young women and girls. If you were to walk into any store that is marketed towards teen or preteen girls, at least half of the apparel in the shop would be against some school dress codes. If you look through magazines that are geared towards teens or young adults, most of the women in ads are going to be wearing clothes that might not be deemed school appropriate. The developing brains of children and teens have difficulty not being affected, at least subconsciously, by what they see, and what they see as modeled behavior. Society pushes this image of femininity onto children, only to then be told that they are wrong for listening to it. There is a double standard for women of what they are supposed to look like and what is acceptable, each clashing with each other.

It is an unfortunate occurrence that dress codes, as they are, create a underlying sexism in the school environment and teach a toxic lesson to today’s youth.