TIME Opinion

How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture

Laura Bates is the co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project which collects stories of sexual harassment and gender discrimination from minor incidents to more severe situations.

When teachers punish girls for wearing clothes deemed 'too distracting' for boys to handle, it teaches a damaging lesson

Some of our most powerful and lasting ideas about the world around us are learned at school. Hard work pays off. Success comes from working together. Girls’ bodies are dangerous and harassment is inevitable.

This might sound inflammatory, but it is not an exaggeration. It is the overriding message being sent to thousands of students around the world by sexist school dress codes and the way in which they are enforced.

In the past month alone a Canadian teen says she was given detention for wearing a full length maxi dress because it violated her school dress code by showing her shoulders and back and a UK school announced plans to ban skirts altogether.

These are just the most recent cases in an ever-growing list that has seen shoulders and knees become a battleground, leggings and yoga pants banned and girls in some cases reportedly told to flap their arms up and down while their attire was inspected, or asked to leave their proms because chaperones considered their dresses too ‘sexual’ or ‘provocative’.

Many schools respond to criticism of dress codes by citing the importance of maintaining a ‘distraction free’ learning environment, or of teaching young people about the importance of dressing appropriately for different occasions.

But at the Everyday Sexism Project, where people from around the world share their experiences of gender inequality, we have received over a hundred testimonies from girls and young women who are affected by the dress codes and feel a strong sense of injustice.

One such project entry read:

“I got dress coded at my school for wearing shorts. After I left the principal’s office with a detention I walked past another student wearing a shirt depicting two stick figures: the male holding down the females head in his crotch and saying ‘good girls swallow’. Teachers walked right past him and didn’t say a thing.”

Girls are repeatedly told the reason they have to cover up to avoid ‘distracting’ their male peers, or making male teachers ‘uncomfortable’…

“At my school our dress code dictates everything about a girls outfit: knee length shorts or skirts only, no cleavage, no bra straps, no tank tops. We can’t even wear flip flops, and girls will be given detentions and sent home for breaking any one of these rules. There’s no dress code for men, and the reasoning? Girls can’t dress “provacatively” [sic] because it could distract and excite the boys.”

I can’t help feeling there is a powerful irony in accusing a girl of being ‘provocative’ – in projecting that societal assumption onto her adolescent body – before she is even old enough to have learned how to correctly spell the word.

One student says she was given three specific reasons for the school dress code:

“1) There are male teachers and male sixth formers [high school seniors]
2) Teachers feel uncomfortable around bras etc.
3) Don’t want the boys to target you or intimidate you”.

This sends an incredibly powerful message. It teaches our children that girls’ bodies are dangerous, powerful and sexualised, and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them. It prepares them for college life, where as many as one in five women is sexually assaulted but society will blame and question and silence them, while perpetrators are rarely disciplined.

The problem is often compounded by a lack of any attempt to discipline boys for harassing behavior, which drives home the message that it is the victim’s responsibility to prevent. We have received thousands of testimonies from girls who have complained about being verbally harassed, touched, groped, chased, followed, licked, and assaulted at school, only to be told: “he just likes you”, or: “boys will be boys”. The hypocrisy is breath taking.

Meanwhile, the very act of teachers calling young girls out for their attire projects an adult sexual perception onto an outfit or body part that may not have been intended or perceived as such by the student herself. It can be disturbing and distressing for students to be perceived in this way and there is often a strong element of shame involved.

“I’ve been told by a teacher that the way I was wearing my socks made me look like a prostitute in my first year of school, making me 13, and I’ve been asked whether I’m ashamed of myself because I rolled my skirt up,” wrote one young woman.

The codes aren’t just problematic for sexist reasons. One project entry reads:

“At age 10 I was pulled out of my fifth grade class for a few minutes for a ‘special health lesson’. As an early bloomer, I already had obvious breasts and was the tallest in my class. I thought they were giving me a paper about reproductive health that’s normally given to the 12 year old girls. Instead I was told to cover my body more because I was different.”

Other incidents have also seen boys banned from school for having hair ‘too long’ or wearing traditionally ‘feminine’ fashion, from skinny jeans to skirts. A transgender student said he was threatened with having his photo barred from the school yearbook simply because he chose to wear a tuxedo to prom. Black girls are more likely to be targeted for ‘unacceptable’ hairstyles. The parents of a 12-year old African American student said she was threatened with expulsion for refusing to cut her naturally styled hair. Her mother was told she violated school dress codes for being “a distraction”.

At this point it starts to feel like such ‘codes’ are less about protecting children and more about protecting strict social norms and hierarchies that refuse to tolerate difference or diversity.

This is a critical moment. The school dress code debate will be dismissed by many for being minor or unimportant, but it is not.

When a girl is taken out of class on a hot day for wearing a strappy top, because she is ‘distracting’ her male classmates, his education is prioritized over hers. When a school takes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behavior, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Students are being groomed to perpetuate the rape culture narrative that sits at the very heart of our society’s sexual violence crisis. It matters very much indeed.

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TIME sexism

Sexism Around the World Told One Tweet at a Time

Woman wearing a mini skirt
Getty Images

The Everyday Sexism Project collects stories of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, both minor and worse. Here are some of the submissions curated by founder Laura Bates

It’s summer. I know this, not just because of the changing of the clocks, the markings in my calendar, or the appearance of blossoms, but because of the entries on the Everyday Sexism Project, my website that collects people’s daily experience with gender imbalance.

The first year it happened, I couldn’t understand the sudden, almost overnight surge in activity and tweets to the project. But when you look more closely at the entries coming in, things quickly become clear. It’s a common phenomenon — what woman hasn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment? — but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening.

I started my website in April 2012 to show how overwhelmingly common incidents of sexism, sexual harassment and assault still are, in spite of the common argument that ‘women are equal now’ and sexism no longer exists. The 60,000 entries that have since flooded in from women all over the world quickly proved how pervasive and severe the problem still is.

What does the change in season mean to you? Many might say a breath of fresh air, walks in the park or even daffodils nodding in the breeze. But for women all over the world, the joys of the season are tempered by wearying frustration as catcalls, harassment and blaring horns go hand-in-hand with the opportunity to spend more time outdoors.

“Two complete strangers to me at lunchtime today: ‘don’t pull your skirt down love, it’s a sunny day, show us your arse’.”

“Walking along a busy road with two female friends, a young man came up and told us to ‘Smile! It’s sunny’”

“Attempted to sit outside this sunny lunch break but got harassed twice in 10 min so I’m spending it indoors at my desk”.

“Walking along the road with my friend on a sunny day, when a man comes towards us leering. As he passes by, he leans in and shouts; ‘Alright ladies, nice day to get naked and be [expletive] the arse isn’t it?’”

“Walking through busy public park at lunchtime. A man on a bike cycles past and says; ‘suck my d**k?’”

It’s a pattern so recognizable, so familiar, that it can be traced across countries and continents, as the nineteen international branches of Everyday Sexism demonstrate.

And it’s happening everywhere.

In the Netherlands:

“I went to the supermarket on a ordinary sunny afternoon, wearing simple clothing. I walked home with a heavy bag and I passed a building. And suddenly I heard behind me ‘zooooo’ (dutch for something like ‘oh helloooooo’ it insinuates approval, in this situation a kind of sexual way). I looked over my shoulder with an angry face, and there stood a guy, probably two or three times as old as me. And I was perplexed! Why should he judge me, is it his duty to give me approval, does he think I need his approval?! I just wanted to go home with my groceries without being judged in a sexist way.”

In France:

“Yesterday I went to the hypermarket… Usually when I am outside of a building I put on my headphones and focus on music to not hear any remarks but because I was waiting for news from a friend I was worried about, I did not do it immediately. A man I meet whispers ‘you have beautiful breasts’ – I wanted to vomit, to disappear, I felt dirty for the rest of the day… I wore a simple tank top – neither tight fitting nor low cut – but hey, I really don’t need to clarify that.”

In Germany:

“Every time I go to visit my friend, I know that in the 100 meters from the bus stop to his home I’ll experience comments, or just leering. Be it by young yobs, or older men. The last time it was ‘hot ass’.”

In Denmark:

“Today I was lying outside and enjoying the sun before I had to go school. I was lying on a bench, when three boys from my school came walking by and then sat down on the bench beside me… Recently I had been losing some weight and my trousers kept falling down, so I had to keep pulling them up, which one of the boys noticed and then moved behind me and started commenting on my underwear. I then told him that I found him very appalling and then he just started moaning my name. I got very angry and upset, and when I got up to leave then he said ‘Yeah baby, let me see your ass’. I was so upset, because all I wanted was just to relax in the sun…”

In Cyprus:

“On hols in Cyprus buying oranges, 3 cars individually come to a complete halt just to try and glimpse up friend’s skirt.”

In the United Kingdom:

“It being sunny does not make it okay for you to lean out your car and shout about my ‘nice rack’”.

In the United States:

“After a rough winter I finally got to drive with my car windows down! Sadly, had to roll them up and pretend to be on my phone because I got stuck in rush-hour traffic next to a pick-up truck with two young men who kept shouting into my car:

‘Hey, pretty lady!’ *wolf whistle*
‘Hey! HEY! We’re talking to you good-looking!’
‘This bitch is pretending to be on her phone!’

This went on for fifteen minutes before I was able to access the nearest off-ramp. Added thirty minutes to my drive home.”

And no, it’s not happening to women because they’re ‘asking for it’, or wearing any particular type of clothing — it affects everyone, from schoolgirls to widows, to members of the LGBT community, and happens everywhere, regardless of dress or time of day, as these recent entries show:

“Last week I was walking past a pub with my 6 year old daughter when a man looked at me and said very loudly ‘wow you have huge tits!’ I am a 45 year old woman and have been getting this most of my life but was even more disgusted that he seemed to think it was ok to say that in front of my 6 year old girl.”

“It doesn’t seem to matter what I wear, whether it’s sweats and a hoodie or a short dress. I still get guys shouting at me to ‘suck their d**k’ out of their cars. Do they expect me to run after them screaming, ‘Wait! Come back! I didn’t get to suck it’?”

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