Niv Miyasato

Does slut-shaming start with school dress codes?

Enforcement of dress code policies play out against broader debate of sexualization of young women in American culture

While school dress codes are nothing new, experts in adolescent behavior warn that the current practice of enforcing them with humiliating, public punishments may be sending the wrong message to students by encouraging the objectification of young women in a hypersexualized society.

Two incidents at the beginning of the current school year spotlighted dress codes and enforcement. At New York’s Tottenville High School on Staten Island, more than 100 students, most of them young women, were disciplined on the second day of school for improper school attire. The students were required to either cover up or wait in an auditorium until their parents arrived with appropriate clothing, according to The Staten Island Advance

In another case last week, at Oakleaf High School in Orange Park, Florida, a teacher stopped Miranda Larkin, 15, for wearing a too-short skirt on the third day of classes. Larkin, newly arrived from Seattle, found herself wearing a lime-green shirt and red sweatpants, each garment labeled “dress code violation.” She was so distressed that she broke out in hives and said the disciplinary action left her feeling “completely humiliated.”

Diana Larkin, Miranda’s mother, told Al Jazeera her daughter said, “‘Mom, I’ve never felt so sexualized in all my life,’ She’s never felt like something of a sexual object until this happened.”

Larkin, who has no problem with dress codes, has a big problem with humiliating girls by forcing them to wear what she called “a shame suit.” So do experts who say the humiliating punishments have the potential to damage a young woman’s self-esteem may be just as dangerous.

“We know that one of the best predictors of mental health is self-esteem. Enduring public humiliation impacts self-esteem in a very dramatic way,” said Riddhi Sandil, a psychologist and lecturer at Teachers College at Columbia University who co-founded the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project.

‘Pop culture tells [girls], ‘Be cute and pretty and sexy, but if you’re too cute, pretty and sexy, you’re a slut.’’

Niv Miyasato

father of a South Orange sutdent

“We have to foster self-esteem in our young girls as opposed to breaking it down at such a tender age,” she said.

While dress codes have historically served multiple purposes, including minimizing differences in socioeconomic class, according to Sandil, there are risks that they can single out girls as objects of distraction — in a sense blaming the victim.

“The schools’ response tells young women that they are completely responsible for men’s behavior, which is an extraordinarily dangerous message. Women and girls are regularly blamed for the crimes committed against them," said Chitra Panjabi, a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women.

Clinical psychologist Jill Weber — who consults on the impact of gender and culture on identity, self-esteem and relationship development — thinks dress codes should be abolished. She says they promote “body hatred” in young women.

“There’s already enough of that to go around,’’ she said, “but when a woman, especially at that age, is being told that your skirt is too short, girls can become more unaccepting of their bodies.”

Weber believes that students can be taught to dress for the workplace without adhering to a dress code. “These issues can be worked out in the home or in health classes that teach students that they can be taken more seriously by dressing professionally,” she said.

A hypersexualized society

Pop star Christina Aguilera in a controversial Sketchers “Naughty and Nice” ad.

The enforcement of dress code policies play out against the broader backdrop of the sexualization of young women in American culture.

A landmark 2007 study commissioned by the American Psychology Association (APA) found virtually every media form studied provided “ample evidence” of the sexualization of women, according to the study, which concluded the problem was widespread, growing and harmful to girls’ self-esteem. 

Dress codes may amplify the issue. “On the one hand, schools tell young women, ‘Please don’t expose your body because it’s improper if you do.’ On the other hand, media sends the message that women who expose their bodies are empowered,” said Sandil, pointing to Beyoncé.

For a young woman, “that’s very confusing because while she is told that it’s improper to wear a very short skirt, she sees Beyoncé in a leotard being worshipped by the public,” she said. “This all comes at a time when a girl is developing into a woman and is incredibly self-conscious of her body. What is a girl to do with all this?”

Many of them learn to self-objectify, which is when girls learn to think of and treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance, according to the APA report.

Viewed as an object of distraction for boys by school dress codes, girls are usually admonished in language that encourages their objectification. “Girls are often told not to wear ‘distracting’ clothing,” Sandil said. “Schools are sending the message that a girl’s physical appearance is to blame for how boys behave towards them.”

The APA study found that the process of objectification “undermines confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety and even self-disgust.” It also linked the objectification of young women’s bodies with three of the most common mental health problems of adult females: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

Teens fight back

Some teens have begun to challenge dress codes that they say sexually objectify them.  

In March a group of girls in Evanston, Illinois, picketed Haven Middle School after they were told that leggings were “too distracting to boys," according to 13-year-old Sophie Hasty who was quoted in The Evanston Review.

According to Hasty, the justification given for why girls can’t wear leggings “gives us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do.”

And in New Jersey, a group of students at South Orange Middle School began a social media campaign, “I am more than a distraction,” with a matching hashtag to challenge dress codes that they say normalize the notion that girls’ bodies are a distraction.

Their school’s daily loudspeaker announcement about “appropriate” clothing for female students prompted them to act.

“It started to really unsettle them,” said Niv Miyasato, whose daughter, Lily, is one of the campaign’s co-founders.

Miyasato believes that dress codes are an extension of a larger societal problem that requires women to police their bodies. “It’s confusing for girls because they’re being raised with conflicting messages at a critical time in their lives,” he said. “Pop culture tells them, ‘Be cute and pretty and sexy, but if you’re too cute, pretty and sexy, you’re a slut.’”

He added, “A young woman can’t win. If you wear short shorts and a tank top, you’re being sexualized, and if you’re covering up, it’s because you’re being sexualized.” Part of the problem, he said, is that school officials are not talking to students about what they wear.

Miyasato also stressed the need to include boys. “Not only does this viewpoint hurt women, but it also denigrates men to these sex-hungry objects that have no control over their sexual drive,” he said. 

Or as Maia Fish, 13, wrote the dean at Russell I. Doig Middle School in Trumansburg, New York, when she launched a successful petition to have the dress code changed, “Apparently, the only reason for the dress code is so outfits aren’t distracting students from their work,” she wrote. “If boys don’t pay attention to their work, don’t blame the girl in the tank top.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter