This Is What It Takes to Overturn Sexist High School Dress Codes
Most girls learn that women's bodies are objectified and sexualized in a way that men's simply are not as part and parcel of puberty. This past year, however, teens have been refusing to accept this sexist reality and are revolting by fighting the sexist school dress codes that reinforce this very concept.
But focusing on the dress codes themselves obscures a much bigger, encouraging reality about teen girls: They are in the midst of a feminist, activist awakening. High schoolers don't just view dress codes that inequitably target women as sexist on face value, but as policies emblematic of the deeper sexism they face on day-to-day basis — and they're harnessing the power of both social media and on-the-ground tactics to successfully organize and implement real change.
This issue resonates. "It's not about clothing," Maggie Sunseri, a junior at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Kentucky, and filmmaker of Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Codes, told Mic. "It's about the message behind the dress codes. It's not about just superficially what we're wearing, it's about what people are telling us that means about ourselves."
Her school's dress code is certainly unfair in and of itself, she explained, but it's also a concrete entry point to address a broader reality of everyday sexism. Specifically, she sought to combat the enduring societal double standard in which women's bodies are prioritized over their intellect.
"In our society, females are considered inherently more sexual than boys," she said. "Our bodies are sexualized at every turn, so we have to make these rules that cover up your body or you should be ashamed for it."
Jane*, a student at a private girls' school in Philadelphia, and several other students also found this when their administrators considered the exposure of their shoulders in their school photos "inappropriate" and required the girls to re-take their photos. In response, Jane wrote an op-ed in her newspaper entitled #FreeTheShoulder and organized a student protest of the same name.
"Calling a girl's shoulder 'inappropriate' indicates that it invites sexual attention," Jane told Mic. "Girls should be able to live free of uninvited sexualization, especially in the places they go to educate themselves."
In addition to encouraging women to feel ashamed of their bodies, these policies also suggest women must modify themselves to fit a normative standard. Teachers and other administrators disproportionately target "certain body types" as inappropriate — for example, "bigger girls couldn't wear leggings," she said.
Martine Kushner, a current college freshman at Washington University in St. Louis who similarly worked to change her New York City high school's dress code last year, also observed that dress codes were less about an overarching standard and more about targeting and policing women's bodies.
"Certain body types fill out clothes differently," and some clothes were "considered appropriate on certain body types" but not others, Kushner told Mic. "It was more personal than a dress code should be and contributed to body image issues."
"I think there's a really big connection between ideas that go along with dress codes and eating disorders and self-objectification," Sunseri said. "You're teaching girls to think of themselves as just their bodies."
Ultimately, these dress codes not only normalize a sexist double standard, but also actively teach them to students, especially since they're enforced in a place of education.
"When sexism is normalized by figures of power in institutions of education, girls become numb to the effects it has on their everyday existence," Jane said. "Inequitable dress codes are a perfect example of the patriarchy, subconsciously or not, putting young women 'in their place' time and time again."
But they're fighting to change it. That teen girls across the country are able to identify the sexist symbolism of these policies beyond inequity seems to be a feminist victory in and of itself, but they're hardly stopping there. Countless young women have employed a variety of tactics to actively seek change.
Plenty have utilized old-school, on-the-ground tactics. For example, this past May one anonymous teen posted notes pointing out the sexualized nature of dress codes around her school's campus. Students in Shelton, Connecticut, wrote a petition against a sexist prom dress code, and a Canadian teen wrote her administrators a letter directly. Students in New Jersey organized a protest before school, which included marching, chanting and carrying written signs. Jane distributed #FreeTheShoulder pins to her peers, and Kushner, with the help of members of her high school's feminist club, met with and gave a presentation to school administrators explaining the issue and asking for a shift in their policy's language.
Teens are also harnessing the power of social media to advance their efforts and make them highly visible. In May, a Canadian high school student launched the hashtag #CropTopDay, asking teens everywhere to protest sexist dress codes on social media — an effort similar to that of a group of New Jersey high school students who launched the hashtag #IAmNotaDistraction last year.
While plenty write off social media as superficial or even detrimental to teens, with examples like these it's clear that it's an increasingly essential tool for teens to create change.
"When you combine [social media and hashtag activism] with the ability to organize, it's so much easier to spread awareness, people are so much more aware now," Kushner said.
Social media doesn't just facilitate these efforts via tools like hashtags, but it also creates awareness and exposure that further radicalizes students elsewhere. In fact, it was viewing other teens' social media-based efforts that partly encouraged Sunseri to create her documentary.
"Every day you wake up with a new dress code story, and I think that's very empowering," she said. "I was really encouraged to make the documentary because I saw other people speaking out."
They're identifying as activists. Fighting sexist dress codes doesn't just serve the purpose of changing a single experience of everyday sexism teen girls face. Instead, it is an issue through which they're forming activist identities.
"I call myself an activist," Sunseri told Mic. "I think dress code activism provides an important foundation for activism later on in a teen's life. It teaches young people that they can change the world, and they can start with their own community."
These young women may be tackling a policy related to their bodily autonomy in the classroom now, but in a few decades, they may very well fight other issues of sexism in political offices and boardrooms across the country.
Editor's note: Last name and identifying details held at the student's request.