At 14 years old, Avery was sent home in tears for not wearing a bra to school too many times. Elena was dress coded during the memorial for Mr. Lee, who died in the Kaffeinate explosion. A teacher told Julia she should be a lifeguard because she ‘liked to show skin.’ She told school counselors and they said there was “nothing to do about it.”
Incidents like this aren’t out of the ordinary at Durham School of the Arts. For decades, Durham’s public school system has taken positive steps towards achieving gender equality. Its dress code, however, has been left in the dust, and as a concept is sexist and outdated.
I’m a rising senior at DSA and have been a student there since sixth grade. I have been subject and witness to countless sexualizing and degrading conversations around the dress code. Its enforcement by faculty at DSA is inconsistent but one thing that is always consistent is who is being pulled out of class for violating it, sent to the front office, and forced to wear a school issued T-Shirt that goes well below the knees of even taller students (like myself). It is nearly always female students who are targeted by the dress code. More often than not, these students are Black or Hispanic. I am white.
Tyshana, one of my classmates, says it’s no secret that DSA unfairly targets students of color and those that are feminine-presenting when it comes to enforcement of the dress code. For example: spaghetti straps, strapless tops, and halter tops are not permitted, and this policy rarely affects the majority of our male classmates. Tyshana goes on, “students of color, or of a certain weight, are more heavily singled out by faculty and staff.”
She’s right. Administrators often focus on girls with more curves who are therefore deemed more “distracting.” This type of enforcement, where our teachers are deciding whether or not our bodies are considered too sexual for a learning environment, is detrimental to a growing young woman’s mental health around her own perceptions of her body.
“My freshman year, a male teacher made a comment about my chest being out…saying ‘I can’t believe your mom let you out of the house like that.’ I felt uncomfortable, but didn’t think much of it until I spoke with other girls who had experienced similar things,” recalls Rhianna, a recent graduate.
There is a culture of sexual objectification at DSA disguised as a dress code. While the larger issue stems from DPS policy, the enforcement at DSA only perpetuates misogyny. I asked DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga’s office what the purpose is behind the dress code. A spokesperson responded that DPS district policies “include a dress code to support a safe learning environment that does not materially disrupt the educational process or school operations.” The DPS spokesperson redirected his statement to other resolutions–actually good resolutions–that Durham’s school board has passed; one is the CROWN act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyles. The spokesperson affirmed the superintendent’s commitment to the claim that the dress code “promotes student equity.”
The idea that a dress code is designed to create “a safe learning environment” is difficult for me to accept when it’s paired with stories of enforcement that prioritize preserving modesty over facilitating a person’s safety. For example, one student recalls being told to stand during a tornado warning when everyone else was told to crouch for their safety.
“My dress was an ‘acceptable’ length,” she says, “but moved up so they had me take my blazer off to cover my bottom. But when the teacher saw it had spaghetti straps, she suggested I ‘just stand.’”
The statement from Mubenga’s office is also vague and deflective of the core issue that the dress code raises. Do a girl’s belly button and shoulders “materially disrupt” a “positive learning environment”? If so, we have to consider who is being disrupted, and why. The dress code, therefore, is teaching boys that it’s okay to objectify women, and catering to their ‘needs’ to not be distracted rather than promoting a safe and comfortable learning environment for girls without constant harassment from faculty telling us to show less skin.
“The first day of seventh grade, our assistant principal walked into our classroom to do a ‘dress code check,’ unannounced,” says yet another student, a rising freshman. “All my friends and I felt like we had to pull our shorts down lower and hunch over to make sure our stomachs weren’t showing.”
The priorities of administrators are so skewed, I was once even pulled out of class during a math quiz and asked to unzip my jacket to see what shirt I had on under, then sent to student services. I emailed the staff member involved about the incident, but got no response.
It’s extremely uncomfortable and demoralizing to constantly be reprimanded for my body being sexualized by the staff at my school. While the dress code is DPS policy, not all schools enforce it to the humiliating extent that DSA does. Style and fashion norms in 2021 have changed astronomically since those in charge of writing and enforcing the dress code were growing up, meaning crop tops and tight fitting clothing may seem out of the ordinary for them, while our generation is accustomed to seeing influencers in media wear these clothes all the time.
Still, this is no excuse for discriminatory disciplinary practices for dress code violations.
Enforcing the dress code seems to be a priority over our education and mental health, which sends a message to young girls that covering their body to the standards that won’t “distract” boys is more important than growing into a confident, body positive young woman, along with teaching boys that sexual objectification is normal and okay.
The education system has a lot of work to do to actually equalize the playing field across the board. Eliminating school dress codes is one more step in the right direction towards dismantling oppressive systemic policies that are damaging to students.
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