The Internalized Misogyny Behind School Dress Codes



In 2018 a museum in Brussels (inspired by a project developed by students at the University of Kansas) had an exhibition entitled “What Were You Wearing” which recreated outfits worn by rape victims.

Rebecca St Fleur, Class of 2024, Contributor

A dress code is a set of rules in regard to how someone should dress. But there are many issues with this normalized concept in society that fans the flames of internalized misogyny within people. There will be mentions of rape and sexual assault in this article. Proceed at your own discretion. 


Part I: Dress Codes are Sexist

Females are disproportionately targeted by these rules in comparison to males. Many would argue that that is because females have more options for clothes than males but there are many examples to prove why this isn’t true.

Dress codes specifically target women, and males rarely, if ever, get the same treatment. As a student, I’ve witnessed many times where girls and boys have the same kind of clothes on and yet the only one called out by staff is the girl. It’s even happened to me personally. A teacher tried to dress code me because my shoulders were able to be seen, and yet a boy walking with a sleeveless jersey that very same day was allowed.

When it’s a hot day, in some schools, boys are allowed to take off their shirts in gym class, but a girl is seen wearing a sports bra and reactions are very different. Even though girls would be showing significantly less skin. A receptive example is a boy walking with his pants halfway down.

This isn’t to say the way one dresses is right or wrong, but to point out the gap in treatment and reaction on articles of clothing depending on gender.


Part II: Dress Codes are Outdated

Dress codes are outdated and severely out of touch with today’s reality. They started being made and gaining popularity in the 1920s. Schools are still using clearly sexist rules from a time where it was illegal for women to vote, to have opinions, to work, and they weren’t seen as anything other than property to the man they were attached to.

Schools keep up with modern advancements in technology, science, and more so why can’t they with clothing? Fashion and social expectations have completely changed since then and the rules should accommodate for that.

Part III: Connotations

Dress codes enforce the connotation that males are above females because it makes females conform to male needs. The answer I’ve always received when asking why I’m being dress coded is, “Your outfit is inappropriate and will distract the boys.” And because of this, girls are asked to change or even go home so that these male students can focus. The notion that we’ve deemed it acceptable for educators to stop a lesson by claiming a student’s clothing is making a disruption (instead of the act of stopping the lesson itself) is baffling.

First, this implies that males’ education is superior to females. Schools have no problems taking a girl out of class to make a boy more comfortable. But what about that girl’s education? Why is she placed second? Not allowed to be comfortable in her own clothes? And next, this insinuates that it is a woman’s fault for how a man views them. Which leads to the dangerous topic of victim blaming.


Part IV: Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. Dress codes are one of the earliest things in someone’s life that begins to enforce rape culture and victim blaming. If you strip down what dress codes are down to their foundation, it is adults blaming females for distracting their male classmates. It teaches girls that their bodies are inherently sexual and also property to others because when they wear something deemed inappropriate, they are punished for it. So if others want to sexualize them, it is their fault. Not the one that is objectifying them, not the one whos abusing them, and not the one whos raping them. And that is disgusting.

Dress codes make it clear that they are holding girls responsible for how boys view them. It’s how statements like provocative clothing came to be. The idea that if you’re wearing something they deem inappropriate, it’s because you want attention and not because you enjoy how you look.

Many issues like these stem from dress codes. People blame women based on how they are dressed because they claim that it provokes and therefore excuses harassment, unwanted attention, and even sexual assault. And then at the end of that day, rarely anything happens to the one displaying the predatory behavior. No, instead the girl is forced to change so that others don’t sexualize her. Instilling a mindset where we blame the victim.

Schools claim dress codes deem what is inappropriate and what is not, so that boys won’t be distracted, and you will be kept safe. I hate the latter part of this statement because clothes will not decide whether you get harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped. Many rape victims have been asked the insensitive question of “what were you wearing?” when the disgusting act happened to them, because many people believe certain outfits provoke it.

But did you know that a majority of rape victims were wearing your so-called provocative clothing when it occurred? In Brussels, Belgium there is an exhibit at the Centre Communautaire Maritime featuring replicated clothing worn by real victims of sexual assault to prove that the kind of clothing you wear never incites rape nor justifies it.


Part V: Sexual Objectification

Teachers who follow through the school’s handbook of dress codes tend to sexually objectify students by referencing said student’s body. Curvier and heavier girls will be targeted more by these rules because clothes fit their body shapes differently, and these rules end up being an excuse for body shaming.

Izzy Labbe, creator of one of SPARK Movement’s blog posts has said, “They’re getting in trouble for the shape of their bodies” and “it sounds like we’re blaming girls for other people’s negative reactions to their bodies. That’s misogyny! And it’s a problem when it enters classrooms and girls’ bodies are treated—by the staff, by the boys, and by each other—as dirty, ugly objects that must be covered.”

There is nothing inherently sexual about a shoulder or a knee or legs, but the over-sexualization of women in our society has normalized that these body parts are taboo.

Anais Rivero has said, “The rules bend for certain body types and are much more restricted to others. How can we enforce a set of rules regarding clothing to a student body with diverse figures and heights? The dress code persecutes certain women over others, if I try to wear a shirt with a deeper cut, as a person with a bigger bust I will get dress-coded. Yet, I will see girls who have smaller chests wear the exact same type of clothing but are not reprimanded. It’s unfair and unjust because the dress code is subjective to what body type is wearing the clothes, it’s a form of body shaming. Curvier women are made to feel that our bodies are sexual objects that need to be covered up, we are taught that our bodies are shameful. We should be more focused on educating our students rather than policing their clothing and bodies.”


Part VI: All Men are Pigs

Dress codes not only present issues against women but also men, because of how it perceives them. Dress codes perpetuate a culture where boys “cannot help themselves,” and are “too easily distracted.” It insinuates that you cannot trust men at all and demean boys as incapable of controlling their basic urges.


Part VII: Solutions

To rid the internalized misogyny behind dress codes, there are many steps administrators could take. Working together with students to come to a solution will build a bridge. But from some ideas, here are steps we could possibly take. Each dress code rule must have an explanation. No gender specific rules or double standards. They should be attuned to cultural and religious differences. For example, hijabs and afros. There should no longer be any sexual objectification by making references to students’ body parts. It should give boys credit for being more than hormones. Girls are not a distraction to them. But if they prove to be, it should hold people accountable. No one is responsible for how someone else views them. And in the act there is a violation to these rules, no public shaming should be enforced. Don’t pull out measuring tape to prove a strap is thin.

Change the perception of how we view gender in our society to evoke change in the not so distant future.