Editorial: Gender discrimination is built into dress codes

Guardian Staff

It’s hard to imagine students going to school unable to express themselves through clothing. We can know a lot about a person from their style.

In years past, Township High School District 214 has taken away this self-expression through the language of the dress code. With 125 words establishing a dress code procedure and guidelines in the District 214 Parent and Student handbook, the code limits 11 different types of shirts, four different types of bottoms, six different head coverings and sunglasses and outerwear. 

The intent of the dress code, according to the handbook, is to avoid all disruptions to the educational process, but consequences for doing so include changing clothing and serving detentions.

But who is actually receiving these punishments? Is it male students, who tend to get away with wearing “Virginity Rocks” shirts or other articles of clothing that contain “sexual or obscene connotations” as they are written in the code? Or is it the female students whose shoulders tend to be exposed?

We at the Guardian say it tends to be the latter. 

Dress codes need to be enforced more consistently across the board at Elk Grove, especially considering the disparity between male- and female-identifying students. The problem with them is that they disproportionately affect many female students who are sometimes targeted for what they wear to school.

For instance, the District 214 dress code bans items including non-religious headwear, gang-related clothing and other outerwear such as coats and jackets. However, one bullet point of the dress code specifically bans items such as “halter tops, tube tops, sleeveless undershirts, strapless tops, spaghetti strap tops, low cut tops, racer-back tops, backless tops, tops with one shoulder, bare midriff tops, crochet tops, swimwear, short shorts, short skirts, underwear worn as outerwear, low riding pants displaying boxers or sweatpants.”

Of these 16 items, it’s without question that most of them tend to be worn by female-identifying students. Items such as spaghetti strap tops, tube tops and halter tops are deemed to be disruptive per the language of the dress code.

Many Elk Grove students have experiences being dress coded for wearing similar attire. For instance, junior Delaney Flynn said that one time she was told to cover up her shoulders because a strap had been showing. 

She had to throw on a sweater. 

“I would just try to make the dress code less intense and strict, especially with the shorts and straps rules,” Flynn said. “I think shorts are meant to be short, but obviously not revealing everything.”

Similarly, many of the female-identifying members on the Guardian staff have encountered similar experiences when receiving a dress code violation. To be a female student is to have clothes in your closet on which you slap a big “Not school appropriate” label, and it seems like that is something that the males don’t have to undergo because of the enforcement and language of the dress code.

Additionally, there are similar discrepancies between male and female student dress code violations evident in school athletic programs. Teams are required to follow a set of guidelines provided by the Illinois High School Association when it comes to uniforms. Girls athletic director Stephanie Kezios said the school follows that dress code closely. 

“For athletics, when it comes to competitions and uniforms,” Kezios said, “we are limited by options because we have to follow IHSA guidelines.”

Prior to her current position, Kezios was the head girls volleyball coach from 2010 to 2019. As a coach, Kezios allowed students to practice in spandex shorts to simulate a real game feel. Spandex shorts in an athletic setting is appropriate, but students could still be dress-coded when they step outside of practice.

Kezios added that she finds it important that students express their stylistic individuality in a space that is appropriate and comfortable for them to do so. The dress code is there to make sure students are arriving appropriately to class so they do not offend any other students. 

Despite this, dress codes in general go beyond attire acceptable for the educational environment. These statutes are largely the result of a narrative about how men tend to not be the target of the dress code’s language. Individuals who write the dress code in states, districts and schools use continue to disproportionately restrict the autonomy of female-identifying students through the language and clothing items listed as disruptive.

Girls, boys and educators do not need to take each other down over something as simplistic as clothing. There is nothing wrong with seeing a problem. This just means we can find a solution. 

The best way to correct a dress code is to consult with the students it affects. With this solution, D214 students will be able to share their opinions in an appropriate and timely manner. By reaching out to students, particularly female-identifying students, the dress code can easily be constructed into something that students and educators can enforce and understand consistently, too. Students, educators, parents, and guardians would be the best individuals to consult.

Dress codes cannot be perfect. The issue surrounding self-expression applies to personal beliefs that may extend to stylistic considerations. A dress code is there to attempt to avoid these issues. Fortunately, a dress code can always be revisited and rewritten to better contribute to what students want.