Dress codes are keeping us in a toxic past

September 23, 2020

The choice of what to wear is one of the central ways we express ourselves. Our clothing can reveal the nuances of our personality, it can show what we’re feeling, and it allows us to show others who we are. Self-expression is what clothing should represent. However, when limitations like school dress codes are put on our clothes, what we wear no longer represents our individuality. Rather, it becomes a way to enforce a standard of modesty contributing to the objectification of women and reinforcing toxic social behaviors. 

The most prevalent way in which dress codes do this is by discouraging the display of skin. Shorts can’t extend too far beyond the knee, sleeves can’t be skinny, cleavage or midriff cannot show. Rules like these are usually made in an effort to reduce distraction. This is outright sexualization. It is implicitly saying that “people cannot view you as anything but a sexual object if you are showing too much of your body.” Such messaging causes young people to sexualize their bodies while simultaneously being told to repress that sexuality. Thus, rather than fostering a healthy body image, such rules foster self-consciousness at an age that is already hard enough.

And while dress codes theoretically apply to all genders, they typically target women. The National Association of Education, in a 2018 article, showed how gendered language and enforcement practices cause dress codes to specifically target women. In Fruita Monument High School’s own dress code, a rule banning torso exposure has the addition, “this rule applies to guys as well,” proving that men are not the main targets of dress codes.

What arises is an extremely harmful combination: dress codes sexualize students, and they target women. The implicit message of dress codes becomes “men cannot control themselves if you wear revealing clothing, so it is your responsibility to change how you dress.” Women are told cannot feel comfortable in clothing that feels good and looks good and expresses their personality. Instead, they are made to sexualize their bodies, and feel the need to cover up those bodies lest they sexualize themselves in front of men. 

Reave Cook, a sophomore at FMHS, discussed her experience being dress-coded for wearing a top that exposed her midriff. She said the experience, which happened in front of the whole class made her “extremely embarrassed; it made me feel sexualized and uncomfortable in a place I should always feel safe.” Rather than teaching people (especially men) not to view others’ bodies as sexual objects (especially womens’), dress codes teach us to sexualize our bodies, and then feel shameful about it. This causes people to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, and insecure about their bodies and about what they wear. 

Everybody deserves to feel safe, comfortable, and proud with themselves and their image. Dress codes prevent that goal from becoming reality. If we want healthy and open communities, dress codes need to become a thing of the past.

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