When the girls — students at Urbana Middle School in Frederick County — walked into Urbana’s dining room in yellow, baggy T-shirts, everyone cheered. The yellow shirts were punishment for violating the school’s dress code. But the girls had written a sentence on their clothing:
“I am more than a distraction.”
Also in Maryland, a young woman named Rachel Zuniga launched what became a popular student petition at her school, Linganore High School. Her campaign questioned why many of Linganore’s dress code policies required girls to cover up much of their bodies.
The girls are part of a larger group of students who say dress codes unfairly target females.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that schools have the right to limit a student’s expression if they believe it disturbs the learning environment or violates the rights of other students.
But conflicts arise between the definition of disturbance and students’ rights. Many students say dress codes conflict with gender equality – an important idea in American democracy.
More Than A Distraction
Two years ago, a group of girls in South Orange, New Jersey launched an online campaign to protest their high school’s dress code. The campaign was called #IAmMoreThanADistraction. It got national attention as girls shared their experiences about what they said were unfair rules about students’ clothing.
Since that campaign began, hundreds of petitions have questioned school dress codes. Some students have walked out of school in protest, according to an article in The Atlantic.
Many girls are uniting against dress codes. They say these rules result in body shaming. At the heart of it all, they say, is the notion that girls’ bodies are a “distraction.”
Lauren Weis is the director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. She agrees that some dress codes target girls.
Other educators and sociologists also find dress codes vexing and illogical. That females should be responsible for the unwanted attention from others does not make sense. The Atlantic points to the example that “those wearing what could be considered sexy clothing are ‘asking for’ a response.”
Weis said a new social awareness is happening among girls, and that some of it “is the result of the popularity of what we might call ‘pop culture feminism,’” she told VOA.
She said celebrities like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson have publicly promoted feminist ideas “in ways that seem to make sense to young women.”
Social Media and Popular Culture
Last year, security officers at Vista Murietta High School in California removed at least 25 girls from class for dress code violations, according to Seventeen magazine. Most of the girls were told their dresses or skirts were too short.
The incident took place in June when the temperature was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. (Or 32 degrees Celsius.) The school’s policy says that dresses, skirts, and shorts must be no shorter than 4 inches or 10 centimeters above the top of the knee.
One Vista Murietta student posted a photograph on social media of a boy wearing very short shorts, noting that girls are not permitted to wear shorts that length.
Weis believes that the Vista Murietta students and others are evidence of something beyond gender: a larger social movement around inequality.
“And in today’s culture, there’s so much more awareness of inequality, so, inequality on the basis of gender or sexuality as well as race, class, economic status, and, more recently in the news, so much discussion about sexual assault and sexual violence, and young girls are paying attention.”
There is another group whose gender Weis believes is unfairly targeted: students whose gender expression is different from their legally recorded sex. She says that gender-specific dress codes may punish and humiliate them and it does not create a good learning environment.
For example, earlier this year, CNN reported that a lunch worker at a high school in Ohio denied a boy his meal because the boy was wearing a bow in his hair. In fact, 19 percent of students around the country say they were not permitted to wear clothing that administrators thought was “inappropriate” for their gender. This number comes from a report called the 2013 National School Climate Survey.
Weis calls the growing social movement around dress code “a positive and hopeful sign” that young people today will be active in civic life in a way that has not happened in many years.
Listen to a longer, audio version of this story:
Growing Number of American Girls Questions School Dress Codes (0:13:04)
This story first appeared in VOA Learning English.
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