After a group of middle schoolers in suburban Atlanta made national headlines for protesting their school’s dress code, renewed attention is being paid to how school dress codes and grooming policies disproportionately affect girls and nonbinary students—especially those who are children of color.
The ongoing protests at Simpson Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia, began when eighth grader Sophia Trevino and 15 other female students at the school were written up on the first day of school after a teacher deemed their outfits too revealing. Trevino told The New York Times that because her distressed jeans featured a rip that was higher than the tips of her fingers when her hands were placed against her thighs, she was found in violation of the rules.
“I was angry and nervous, nervous because I’ve never really been sent to the office or anything, and a little angry because my jeans are perfectly fine,” Trevino told WJCL, adding that the dress code is “way more strict on women than it is on the boys.”
Since that day, she and several other students at the school have been protesting the school’s demeaning dress code by wearing T-shirts each Friday that read “Dress codes are sexist, racist, classist.” While a spokesperson for the Cobb County School District told the Times the dress code policy was meant to “encourage a focus on learning for all 110,000 students in Cobb, not on what students prefer to wear,” advocates and legal experts say school dress codes are often used to single out Black and other girls of color, in addition to LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming students.
When talking about the unfair enforcement of school dress code rules, one must also acknowledge that “baked into them are racist and sexist stereotypes,” said Sabrina Bernadel, the Equal Justice Works fellow at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “What that means is that they themselves are stereotyped policies that lead discriminatory enforcement.”
A 2019 NWLC report on dress codes in Washington, D.C. schools found that schools with majority Black populations were more likely to have severely restrictive dress codes that regulated the length of skirts and shorts and restricted the use of hats, head coverings, and hair wraps. The biases of non-Black teachers and administrators also mean that those in charge of enforcing dress codes often perceive Black girls in particular as older and more sexually mature than they really are, while also punishing them for the natural shape of their bodies.
“So a Black girl who may be wearing leggings or spaghetti straps is more likely to be targeted [by dress code restrictions] than other students because of this bias,” said Bernadel. “Of course that’s not right.”
But in addition to not being able to express themselves through their attire, Bernadel and other experts note that being punished for violating a dress code also has the potential to majorly disrupt a student’s education.
“Anytime they get stopped in the hallway and told to go change or get sent to a room to wait for their parents to bring proper clothing, you know that’s lost instruction time,” Bernadel said. “Teachers need to be aware of how that impacts the students overall.”
For trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students, strict dress code rules could also lead to psychological harm.
“These sorts of dress codes also force them to conform to gender norms that [students] don’t subscribe to, and that can be super harmful for students,” Bernadel said. “There’s definitely a negative effect on trans students, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary students.”
In addition to the ongoing student protest in Cobb County, several other high school students are organizing anti-dress code protests at their campuses across the country. High schoolers in El Paso and Texarkana, Texas, say their schools inconsistently enforce their dress codes, leading students to be punished for exposing their shoulders and the lengths of their shirts when worn over leggings. Teens in Berwyn, Illinois, are speaking out about the mandated khaki pants and skirts at their school noting the clothes are both not flattering and leave students who menstruate feeling vulnerable about having accidents. A group of 40 students at Arkansas’s Northside High School are protesting against their school’s strict dress code, telling reporters that it targets certain body types.
The targeting of Black girls in schools is so severe that several pieces of legislation have been designed to specifically address the harm dress codes and grooming policies create. The Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act (better known as the Ending PUSHOUT Act) was first introduced in Congress by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley in 2019 in order to address the fact that Black and brown girls are disproportionately suspended from school across the country. Pressley reintroduced the legislation earlier this year after seeing how Black girls have continued to be suspended and punished during the pandemic and the age of distance learning. While speaking to WBUR in April, Pressley specifically addressed the role dress codes played in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Our schools have got to be places and spaces for learning and growth,” she said. “But for too many Black and brown girls, interactions with racist dress code policies, hair policies, [and] law enforcement in our schools has really defined their experience, and we haven’t seen these disparate punitive impacts wane during the pandemic.”
In addition to advocating for change through legislation, parents and students concerned about restrictive dress codes should also organize against them within their communities, Bernadel said. Working with leaders in the community, parents and students should have conversations “so that they can produce a more inclusive and culturally responsive set of policies.”
Most of all, schools should foster an environment where students of all genders can thrive. “We want Black girls to be their authentic selves in school,” Bernadel said. “Not be penalized for who they are and how their bodies are shaped.”