Oped | As School Dress Codes Strengthen, Wrong Messages Sent to Girls AND Boys

[Paige McCall is a Mount Si High School graduate currently attending New York University who plans to pursue a career in writing. She said she was inspired to write this piece after listening to her younger sister and friends relay their frustrations with new tank top dress code policies.]


Is it Fair?

Imagine this hypothetical if you will. It’s 12 pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into the school year. A girl sits in her 7th grade math class, working on an equation. She’s not sure if she fully understands how to do it yet, but the teacher will explain it after they all give it a shot. Everyone is quietly working, except for two boys sitting behind her, whispering and snickering.

She’s about finished with her problem when she is interrupted by a sharp snap on her back. She turns around to see the boys behind her now laughing at full volume and receiving high fives from their friends. Across the room, some more boys have seen this and begin to laugh with them too—half of the class is distracted by these boys snapping the girl’s bra strap.

The teacher has also seen what has just happened, and after reminding everyone to get back to work, makes his way towards the girl and the boys. She feels momentary relief from her pain and embarrassment, and can’t wait for the boys to be reprimanded so she can just try to finish her work. But instead, the teacher crouches down next to her desk and quietly informs her that she needs to go to the principal’s office. DRESS CODE

Once there, she is told that she needs to call her mom and have her bring her something “more appropriate” to wear. Although it’s 90 degrees out and the air conditioning in the school gets it down to what feels like maybe 87, her “two finger” width tank top is not acceptable because people are able to see her bra straps. She is not allowed to go back to class until she has changed.

She sits in the office for an hour—her mom had to leave work to go home and get her a new shirt and then get it to school. By the time she has changed, math class is long since over, and she still isn’t sure whether she has done the math problem correctly.

And all because you could see the strap of a garment that 50% of people wear on a daily basis? We can all make the reasonable assumption that it’s there without even seeing it. What’s the big deal if a small portion is exposed on a hot day? It’s not like she isn’t wearing a shirt.

Could it be that possibly the [middle school] dress code, which requires “clothing must consistently cover stomachs, backs, shoulders, chests, and undergarments while standing, sitting, bending, or reaching… to alleviate distractions in the classrooms,”   is unfair to girls?

Time for Thought Shift

Let’s be clear. I’m not advocating for girls to come to school wearing nothing—boys certainly can’t do that either. That’s more than fair. But boys can wear tank tops without fear that their exposed shoulder will be perceived as harmful towards the education of girls. When boys wear shorts that don’t go past their fingertips it’s considered funny. The teacher may approach them to make a joke or have a laugh, but never to send them home. If you’re a girl with long legs and long arms, you’re always at risk.

If only the story mentioned above were fictional, or at least a rarity. But it’s become a staple of the American education system—so much so that most people don’t even realize there’s something wrong with it.

The boys, the ones who took it upon themselves to embarrass the girl and effectively distract the class, are allowed to stay in class. They are not embarrassed. Their education is not interrupted. They get to find out if they are doing their math work correctly.

Because it wasn’t their fault. It never is. The girl provoked them. She probably was trying to distract them. And even if she wasn’t asking for it, she should’ve known better.

This outdated rational that school employees spout off to girls on a regular basis during the warmer months doesn’t sound too different from the blame thrown at victims of sexual assault:

“You shouldn’t have been wearing such a short skirt.”

“You were asking for it wearing a tight dress.”

“You don’t wear something like that to a party and expect them not to do anything.

Now I’m sure there are many people who think it’s a big jump from simple school dress codes to rape and sexual assault, but I don’t believe that it is.

It’s called rape culture. And it’s real, like it or not. And I certainly don’t like it.

Girls are taught from a very young age that they must be modest. They have to cover up in order to keep from provoking boys. Because boys just can’t help it. Boys… wait for it… will be boys. That’s right, with one adage anything that a boy does is excusable and probably the girl’s fault

The way that we talk about girls, demand modesty from them and tell them they need to wear more clothing on a 90 degree day in order to keep from distracting boys is harmful to the way that girls, who grow up to become women, are viewed in society.  And it’s also harmful to the way that boys, who grow up to become men, are taught to look at women.

Women are objects. Women are tempting. Women are asking for you to harass them if they don’t follow the long list of rules set out for them.

Time for Change

We need to stop and think about the way we talk about girls. We need to consciously make an effort to stop perpetuating the stereotype that the way girls dress makes harassment or aggression warranted.  Because by doing so we are not only telling girls that they are at fault for any of these unwanted actions, but telling boys that those actions are perfectly acceptable—maybe even natural or uncontrollable.

So one day a boy is in 7th grade snapping the bra strap of a girl in front of him and to his surprise, he doesn’t get in trouble for this, but he watches the girl he hurt get sent home to change. And then one day he’s a man who sees a slightly tipsy girl in a short dress trying to make her way home from a party on her own… and if it was okay that first time, and for the thousand other similar instances in between 7th grade and this moment, doesn’t that mean it’s okay now?

Isn’t it still her fault? Isn’t she asking for it?

Should we keep making the dress code stricter? Outlaw yoga pants next? Or is it time for a new approach? There is an important conversation to be had. It’s time to open that dialogue. 

Author’s Disclaimer

For those of you ready to remind me that “not all men rape” or “there are female rapists too” or “men can get raped too,” I assure you that of course you are correct. No matter the gender of the victim or the assailant, rape is rape.

Approximately 1 in 33 American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. If you think that’s horrible–which it is– you will be disappointed, as I was, to find that rape estimates for women is approximately 1 in 6.

While rape is a problem for both genders, it is staggeringly more prevalent for women. And the correlation between clothing and victim blaming generally happens for women, which is why I chose to focus on women in this piece.

Comments are closed.


  • Well written piece and very much relevant. I took on this topic in one of my graduate school papers this past summer and your, likely sarcastic, comment about banning yoga pants is happening in some areas.
    As a woman and former girl, I am offended by the blatant bias against girls in school dress codes. As a mother of two sons, I am appalled that the burden of teaching them the nature and value of consent is more heavily upon my shoulders than it ought to be. This isn’t about being provocative, it’s about being respectful to each other. I get so irritated when I hear an argument for dress code restrictions for girls that use the guise of “respecting yourself” to justify the inequality.

  • I went to Mt Si and graduated in 1971. I was told to go to the principals office too! It was because I was wearing jeans! We were not allowed back then to wear jeans unless it was really cold and snowing! Well it wasn’t snowing that day but it was cold. The principal gave me a ride home and waited in his car while I changed into a skirt then drove me back to school again. I thought it was absurd but that’s what happened to me. (A couple years later they changed the dress code and allowed girls to wear jeans)
    I do agree that the girls get picked on more then boys but the boy had no right to touch that girl if her bra strap was showing or not! He should’ve been sent to to the principal’s office instead! The boys no doubt were in the wrong! That girl should’ve turned around and told him to keep his hands to himself! Maybe the teacher would have seen it differently!

  • While I appreciate what you are saying and for some female students you are absolutely correct about the unfairness. However, the rules you don’t like do come from situations that required more strictness to either keep children safe or manage the ridiculous numbers teachers are forced to deal with.
    I work as a substitute teacher (and have for the last 5 years) and I can tell you that if the real issue was a too hot day and some disrespectful boys I would be right there with you. This is NOT issue.
    Too many girls come to school to impress, tantalize, and feed their own egos. The outfits that their parents deem appropriate for a 14 year old would make you feel you disgusted; or at least they should. The shortest and tightest of skirts, tops that are a size too small and bras that do not battle cold temperatures (you know what I mean), sheer tops and bottoms where it is considered fashionable to see the underwear underneath. This is a normal day in the high school hallways. I don’t think boys need to be wearing muscle tanks to glorify their body image either!
    Perhaps we should really be asking how are we raising our children to view their wardrobe choices? What message are you sending with what you are wearing and should that message be allowed in this venue? I don’t care what you let your kids wear at home but when they come to school to learn they can still look attractive without looking like sexy models.
    The issue is how much we glorify looking sexy and how much we accept sexual conduct in the schools.
    I do not think this is a question of rape culture I think it is a question of self value and how do we define value. I will tell you that for most high school girls (on some level) they believe that if they were really attractive then some boy will want to have sexual contact with them. This is so sad and so real.
    Let’s teach valuing each other for content instead of sexuality. This would fix a whole lot of problems!

    1. The problem isn’t that young girls are trying to be “sexy,” but that others are sexualizing young girls bodies. Girls can’t just be girls anymore. Everyone has skin and it’s not a secret. What a person is wearing has almost nothing to do with who that person is on the inside. You say “Let’s teach valuing each other for content instead of sexuality,” alright, well, then how about we stop looking down on people for how they dress and push beyond that? Sex is natural. It is human instinct to procreate. Sex should not be taboo. Girls should be able to wear whatever they want without judgement. What’s going to hurt them more? Giving them control and a sense of safety when it comes to their own body? Or telling them that being sexy is bad and shameful? “Too many girls come to school to impress, tantalize, and feed their own egos.” That is a vast overstatement and extremely hurtful. I’m 20 and when I went to Mount Si, I went to school to learn and on some days I honestly just felt like dressing up and looking good. I did not have anyone else in mind but myself. And what’s wrong with having some sort of ego? Especially when so many young girls feel insecure about every part of their body? Controlling what a girl wears is telling her that there is something inherently wrong with her and that’s NOT okay.

    2. You bring up the word safe, ask what message are you sending by dressing like that and make an assumption that many girls who dress a certain way are doing it to tantalize. I would ask, have you actually asked the girls you generalize why they are dressing a certain way? I agree that appropriate outfit decisions are needed at school, but even if a girl does dress a certain way, it doesn’t mean she’s asking for something or her safety should be at risk. I think that’s the type of thinking the author is saying we need to move past. My daughter has long legs. She feels good in skirts. Some are short, but not too short. I can reassure you she is dressed in a way that makes her feel good, not to attract the attention of boys.Here’s one for you: When my daughter drove our F150,very large silver pickup truck through the neighborhood, she said moms waiting at the bus stop for their kids would give her weird, you’re driving too fast looks when she wasn’t speeding. When she drove our silver Tahoe through the same neighborhood, past the same bus stop at the same speed, she said moms smiled at her as she passed. Same girl. Same speed. Different car… because of generalizations.

  • This subject is beyond annoying. Having gone through school in the Bellevue District some decades ago, I can easily say that boys are the ones that need to learn how to respect girls. Bra straps HURT when snapped like a rubber band. Girls are required to wear bras to protect an anatomical part. Girls wearing sweaters, blouses, dresses, sweatshirts or whatever — are all wearing bras — and these boy brats think it is fun to snap their bras.
    It makes me so angry to read this. Why the hell are teachers and / or parents continuing to condone the sexual bullying done by teen boys and creating this stupid double standard.
    Sure her strap was showing, but the boy child’s have no business touching her. IN CLASS ! WHILE THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING THEIR HOMEWORK!~!!
    Why do they get away with this form of sexual bullying while the girl gets shamed, blamed, and misses out on her education. It is not about her clothes in this case. There was nothing written about her being provocative. There was nothing written about her purposely asking for their attention. So why do the little boys who claim they want to be men get to get away with this.
    Angry ? You bet I am.

  • Written from the position of a female. Yes, the boys should have been punished, something your parent should have demanded. But take a look around your school and try to justify the outfits girls are wearing. Why? Obviously you’ve never been a teenage boy. Boys will be boys is no less acceptable than assuming women are asking for it. But there’s a huge difference in the sexualization of females than males in our society. Victoria Secret largest market is teenage girls. Why?
    Go to a dance studio and watch what (mostly) girls are being taught. Why? Listen to the music and ask yourself if it’s ok for your child to say those things. Watch TV.
    It’s not a rape culture. It’s the culture itself. A13 -18 year old manchild is generally only thinking of two things. Sex and food. Provoking one of those based on outfit choice is a mistake that begins with the parents.

  • This article sounds quite similar to one posted in February 2015 at http://notalwayslearning.com/was-bra-ced-for-a-different-reaction/3679). I don’t see where this author gives any credit to the original article, or cites any of her facts about rape. I’m not suggesting there isn’t a double standard about dress codes in schools that needs to be addressed; however, it might be an important lesson for a young journalism student to learn to give credit where credit is due.

    1. I haven’t responded to any of the comments so far because I’ve been too busy with school work, but I feel the need to address this one. First of all, I’m not a journalism student, I’m a film (screenwriting) major. Second of all, I just read the article you linked and the only similarity between our two is the words “bra strap.” Nowhere in the scenario I set forth does the girl fight back. The boys do not repeatedly assault her. Her mother does not challenge the school staff’s interpretation of the assault. In the link you provided the woman directly calls what happened an act of sexual assault. I don’t say that in mine. The piece you linked isn’t even about the dress code. It’s about a specific act of assault on that woman’s daughter. No where in there does the dress code come up– it’s about whether or not her daughter was in the right for hitting those boys. The point of my piece is to outline the ways in which we objectify young women and how that can breed further issues as boys and girls grow up to become men and women. However, I think the fact that you see similarity between the two articles actually speaks towards the prevalence of this issue. My story– though written ENTIRELY by me, based on an actual experience of a former friend of mine– is not an original one. If you bothered to look into dress code articles that are being written, you would see 20 ones a lot more similar to mine than the one you linked being written every day (and I sure didn’t plagiarize any of them either). All around the country people are speaking up on the ways in which victims are blamed when they are sexually assaulted and a lot of people are linking this blame placement to ideas taught to us much earlier in life–specifically the dress code. And although I find your accusation of plagiarism offensive and completely unfounded, I’m actually glad I got to read that article. It makes a great point on a tangential issue, even though it doesn’t address the dress code AT ALL, which is what mine focuses on. The point of me writing this was not simply and extended way of saying “keep your hands to yourselves.” I’m requesting that we all take the time to look at the way we perceive young women and understand that there is no way a woman could dress that would excuse an act of sexual assault against her. Stop victim blaming and start looking at the harassers, the perpetrators, the bra-snappers. Stop demanding modesty from girls and start demanding respect from boys. (The majority of guys I know have figured out this issue without needing to be taught. I’m looking at the few who harass girls and are allowed to get away with it because of what the girl was wearing.) And as for the statistics, they are commonly known statistics that you can find anywhere on the web, but these specifically come from RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network). Here’s the link. https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims

    2. These two stories could not be more dissimilar if you tried. I’m not sure why you posted even posted it? Maybe it was a thinly veiled, passive aggressive, attempt to discredit the author? Was that somehow supposed to sway the point of her article? You owe her an apology for even suggesting she plagiarized any part of her article.

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