01 November, 2016
In August, a group of eighth grade girls took part in an unusual protest in the American state of Maryland.
The girls are students at Urbana Middle School in Frederick County, Maryland. When they walked into Urbana's dining room in yellow, baggy t-shirts, everyone cheered. The top school official required the group to wear the shirts after violating Urbana's dress code. But the girls added large lettering to their clothing. It read: "I am more than a distraction."
The t-shirt punishment is not written in Urbana's dress code; the school official made it up. That is one reason why the girls carried out their protest.
The girls are part of a larger group of students in Frederick County who believe dress codes unfairly target girls.
Also in Maryland, a young woman named Rachel Zuniga launched what became a popular student petition at Linganore High School. Her campaign questioned why many of Linganore's dress code policies required girls to cover up too much of their bodies.
School administrators say student opposition to dress codes is normal for the first month or two of every school year. Yet, the last few years have witnessed something different: a growing number of American girls expressing the belief that those policies unfairly target them.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that schools have the right to limit a student's expression if they believe that it disturbs the learning environment or violates the rights of other students.
But there often are conflicts between what the school officials believe is a disturbance and what the students believe are their rights in a democracy. Many students think that dress codes conflict with the policy of 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 received attention nationwide from girls who shared their experiences about what they believed were unfair rules on students' clothing. #IAmMoreThanADistraction even became a trending topic on Twitter.
Since that campaign began, hundreds of petitions have questioned school dress codes. And some students have walked out of school in protest, notes The Atlantic.
Many girls are uniting under their opposition to dress codes. They say these rules result in body shaming. The girls also say the codes excuse "rape culture," and support unhealthy ways of thinking about women that can lead to sexual assaults. At the heart of it all, they say, is the belief 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.
"As I see it, the problem is that these kinds of codes sexualize and demean girls' bodies because they assume that girls and their bodies are a distraction or a temptation to male students."
Other educators and sociologists also find dress codes rooted in a highly problematic societal logic: that girls and women "are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention," says The Atlantic, "and that those wearing what could be considered sexy clothing are ‘asking for' a response."
At Linganore High School, for example, a policy about leggings – which are usually worn by girls – says they can be worn only if shirts worn with them cover the student's backside. This leggings policy is said to be common at other American schools.
Zuniga disagreed with the leggings rule and other policies on clothing at Linganore. She told the Frederick News-Post newspaper that her school's dress code teaches males "that it is OK for their wrongdoings against females."
VOA attempted to contact two administrators at Frederick County Schools, but was told they were too busy to speak on the issue. VOA also reached out to that same district's spokesman, but has yet to receive an answer.
Tom Saunders is the instructional director of middle schools for Frederick County. Asked whether the dress code wrongly targeted girls, he told the News-Post in August that men's clothing has mostly stayed the same over the years.
He also said that middle school age students grow quickly, and therefore clothing that was appropriate in the past may "no longer fit." He suggested that parents who do not agree with the dress code contact the head of the school.
Social Media and Popular Culture
Lauren Weis believes 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."
Media personalities may be partly responsible for this new recognition among girls. But social media is also adding to the national discussion.
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 on a day in June when the temperature was about 32 degrees Celsius. The school's policy says that dresses, skirts, and shorts must be no shorter than 10 centimeters above the top of the knee.
Some Vista Murietta girls posted images on social media to show their clothing the day they were "dress coded" and to show their school's clothing policy.
Vista Murietta High School's policy includes one list for boys and another list for girls. Some of the policies for clothing length, for example, only apply to girls.
One 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."
Social media has helped young people reach a wider audience.
Girls at Linganore, for example, used Twitter for this goal. They started an account called @Linganore Girls to "support each other and work against misogyny and body shaming."
At Farragut High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, student Holly Sikes started a petition on Change.org, a social media site for launching national petitions. Her appeal read, "Are we as a county seriously willing to send a girl home and deprive her of her education simply because her shorts are ‘too short'?"
She also wrote that these rules "promote victim blaming."
More than 3,700 people have signed her petition.
A spokesperson for Knox County Schools told WATE.com that parents and students did not object to the dress code after a public school board meeting on those rules.
Even so, some parents do object to school dress codes, and are using social media to discuss their experiences.
A mother in Kansas, Kimberly Jones, became angry after her daughter was forced to change into gym clothing at school. She posted a photo of her 11-year-old daughter's violation: a long shirt with leggings. The girl was new to the school, Jones explained to People magazine.
Jones used Facebook to tell her story. She wrote that the school did not allow her daughter to call her to bring her a different pair of pants.
"Apparently, 13 year old boys can't control themselves around this," she said jokingly about her daughter's long shirt and leggings.
To Be or Not Be... Gender Neutral
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.
I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Phil Dierking.
Alice Bryant wrote this story based on a number of news reports and an original interview with Lauren Weis. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
t-shirt - n. a shirt that has short sleeves and no collar and that is usually made of cotton
dress code - n. a set of rules about what clothing may and may not be worn at a school, office, restaurant, et cetera
distraction - n. something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention
petition - n. a written document that people sign to show that they want a person or organization to do or change something
disturb - v. to stop someone from working, sleeping, etc
gender - n. the state of being male or female
shame - v. to cause (someone) to feel guilt, regret, embarrassment, or sadness for doing something wrong
logic - n. a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something
appropriate - adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation
feminism - n. the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
dress - n. a piece of clothing for a woman or a girl that has a top part that covers the upper body and a skirt that hangs down to cover the legs
skirt - n. a piece of clothing worn by women and girls that hangs from the waist down
length - n. a piece of clothing worn by women and girls that hangs from the waist down
shorts - n. short pants that reach down to the knees
misogyny - n. hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women
validate - v. to show that someone's feelings, opinions, et cetera, are fair and reasonable
deprive - v. to take something away from someone or something
humiliate - v. to make someone feel very ashamed or foolish
bow - n. a knot that is made by tying a ribbon or string into two or more loops and that is used for tying shoelaces or for decoration