Are Strict Dress Codes Teaching Students the Right Lessons?

Are Strict Dress Codes Teaching Students the Right Lessons?

It’s happened again: Another female teenager was publicly embarrassed in her school for seemingly violating an obscure dress code. Carey Burgess is her name, and she’s a 17-year-old with a hefty list of academic accomplishments and honors. Yet, her proven ability to make the grades and serve in leadership positions at her high school are still overshadowed by her appearance—and it isn’t lusty teenage peers causing the problem.

Carey’s school, like so many others around the country, has outlined a precise set of dress code rules aimed at maintaining student modesty and preserving educational focus. However, the very goal of these dress codes continues to grow more contradictory with each student who’s sent to the principal for showing the three inches above her knee. At what point does a school’s classrooms and hallways traverse being those of a learning institution because of a universal hypersensitivity to what everyone is wearing?

According to some, that line has already been crossed. Lindsay Merbaum, a former teacher who says her school’s dress code policy forced her to police girls’ bodies, asks a valid question of school systems: “Shouldn’t an institute of learning’s job be to challenge stereotypes and the objectification of women’s bodies, rather than perpetuating the relationship between how you look and your value as a person?

Burgess would probably agree, having said herself that she wished her school would focus more on education than how she may potentially appear to a handful of people. One of the world’s oldest sayings states that actions are louder than words, so when an eagle-eyed teacher dooms an otherwise exemplary student to suspension over a sweater in the wrong color, which lesson is more likely to stick with that student? It probably isn’t related to algebra.

Of course, not every school is so extreme. In general, dress codes do exist for a few good reasons—but when the primary focus shifts from education to appearance, the overall goal is blurred with hypocrisy. Teachers focus on implementing rules instead of teaching core concepts and students as a whole are taught to analyze each others’ appearance instead of the white board.

I, too, had to follow the “finger-tip length” shorts rule in middle school. I understood the reason for this and did my best to comply, despite being a 5’7 12-year-old who was taller than most of the boys. I had made it through my first two years at that school without a single mention of my appearance or clothes, until the day I sat writing a timed essay about my role model. My focus was on my chosen person, how she had attended a college states away from her family, and how she had studied foreign languages and classic literature. However, my teacher’s focus was on my thighs. I was tapped on the shoulder and informed in front of the silent class that I needed to go change. That was the last time I wore shorts to school until my junior year of high school; it was also the start of questioning my appearance in class instead of losing myself in the material.

Our culture’s quest for a pristine learning environment that “desexualizes” female students is actually achieving the wrong goal by honing in on dress code violations that aren’t explicit or offensive. If her breasts aren’t out and her waist is covered, let the girl do what she came to school to do—learn.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.