Analysis

Is your school dress code biased against girls? Probably.

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No spaghetti straps. No halter tops. No leggings. No cleavage. No midriffs. No short skirts.

Most public school districts across Greater Lansing have a lot to say this year about what local students — particularly teenage girls — can and cannot wear while in the classroom. And amid a nationwide cultural revolution on gender inequities, some local high schools may be falling behind with overly restrictive rules that seem to almost exclusively target young girls over boys.

City Pulse analyzed the student dress codes at all 12 public school districts in the Ingham Intermediate School District. And despite some recent changes, most of them still included plenty of gender-specific language, with far more rules on garments that are typically worn by girls and requirements that butts, breasts, cleavage, midriffs, backs and collarbones be covered.

Only five school districts — East Lansing, Okemos, Holt, Waverly and Stockbridge — appear to have taken intentional efforts to rid their dress code policies of any gender-specific language, instead focusing only on clothing that could pose a safety risk or disrupt a classroom lesson.

The others could arguably use some work in ensuring that young women are treated with equity.

“It really is problematic how these dress codes seem to be focusing on women and making them responsible for other people’s actions or reactions,” said Therésa Winge, associate professor of apparel and textile design at Michigan State University. “Even in policies without gendered language, there are still rules on women’s dress.”

Several portions of the Lansing School District policy, for instance, are designed to limit “attire which is revealing.” It specifically “discourages” high heels and includes a districtwide ban on camisoles, halter and tube tops, spaghetti straps, anything that exposes the midriff or chest and leggings that aren’t also covered with another garment that extends to at least the mid-thigh.

And while district officials might have removed any specific references to gender, the rules still carry a disparate impact on attire that is predominately marketed and sold to female students.

Cordelia Black, executive director for the district’s office of school culture, said the dress code restrictions are designed entirely to prevent “health and safety issues” but she couldn’t elaborate on how leggings, spaghetti straps and exposed midriffs could pose a real danger to students. 

“For us, we look primarily at the article of clothing rather than the gender. Midriffs, for example. Boys can wear midriffs. All districts are different and we’re not targeting any specific gender,” she said, later noting that the ban on leggings is designed to “discourage inappropriate contact.”

Dansville Public Schools also requires skirts and dresses to be 5 inches longer than shorts and bans spandex, yoga pants, midriffs and “clothing that emphasizes cleavage.” The dress code policy for formal dances at the district is also entirely applicable only to female students.

Haslett Public Schools also bans halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps and anything else that exposes the belly or back. With a similar policy in place at Leslie Public Schools, its Board of Trustees also specifically lists “modesty” among its intended guidelines for a district dress code.

Messages left with superintendents in several local districts were left unreturned. But that could be because district officials would have real trouble justifying the restrictions, Winge suggested.

“There’s still this notion that women are responsible for everyone else’s reaction to their bodies. This plays out with these abortion situations in Texas, all the way to dress codes at local high schools. It’s amazing to me when I see these smart, young women questioning whether or not they can wear a strappy shirt. That should not be something they’re even worried about,” Winge added. “They’re trying to cover these shifting erogenous zones in the dress codes, cover up all of the places that might titillate a heterosexual man. I get it, but that’s insanity when you think about the fact that we also have transgender, nonbinary, asexual, gay and lesbian students.”

Winge said that clothing items wrapped into some problematic school district dress codes — like strapless shirts — are probably prohibited simply because of their sex appeal. And she thinks that sends the wrong message to young girls, especially as they’re developing into women.

The policy at Williamston Community Schools includes an emphasis on clothing that is not “distracting to teachers, other students, or disruptive of the educational process” but it also includes a ban on bare midriffs and backs, low-cut jeans, tube tops and spaghetti straps.

Mason Public Schools bans “shirts that expose the stomach, back or cleavage” and also sets a length limit on skirts and dresses. It reads: “Coverage of the body is expected at all times.”

Similarly, Webberville Community Schools require “minimum standards” that backs, bellies and breasts be covered and that all skirts, shorts and dresses be no shorter than the “mid-thigh.”

Winge explained: “Young women tend not to understand that what they’re wearing might elicit attention that they do not want or that what they’re wearing could be sexually provocative. They just don’t see it that way, and with these dress codes we’re forcing them to have those types of conversations and think about dress in ways that could be very problematic to the development of a young woman — perhaps so that she grows up thinking sex is shameful or that it’s her responsibility to dress differently if someone ever does something violent toward her. It’s wrong.”

Williamston Superintendent Adam Spina recognizes that school dress codes typically tend to focus much more on girls than boys. Those concerns are why his district’s dress code is redefined annually — including the recent removal of specific length requirements on shorts. 

“We are chipping away at this,” Spina said. “We address a number of challenging dress code matters each year. In some cases, we realize that we need to make a change in policy based on lessons learned. In our case, feedback from parents has been invaluable on this topic.”

He added: “While we have taken positive steps, I do not think we are at the finish line yet.”

District officials in Webberville said that some gender-specific language was intentionally removed from the dress code within the last few years. Instead, enforcement is based largely on ensuring the “five Bs” stay covered throughout the day: the butt, belly, breasts, back and boxers. 

In doing so, Superintendent Andrew Smith said the district created a policy that “applies fairly and equally to all students.” Winge, however, has doubts about those types of broad policies.

“It’s a shame that they seem headed toward these heteronormative body parts that they assume are sexualized. The truth is people fetishize everything — a foot, an ear. I don’t know,” Winge added. “I don’t think that our schools would be too happy with women in burkas, but at the same time, it seems we’re all moving to a place where people are expecting young women to cover up to such a point that it produces that kind of modesty. And that’s exactly the point in a burka.”

East Lansing Public Schools, by contrast, is mainly focused on “apparel that causes a substantial disruption in the school environment” like accessories that promote drugs, alcohol, violent behavior or “lewd, vulgar, obscene, or offensive language or symbols.” The only specific reference to a clothing garment in the policy is a requirement that students wear their shoes.

“We know that a lot of dress code policies inherently target women, but also students of color — particularly Black females. Rules on hats, hoodies and sagging jeans also target a lot of cultural normatives,” said Klaudia Burton, director of equity and social justice for East Lansing Schools. “It comes back to how society views women and the general sexualization of women’s bodies.”

Unlike several other local districts, Okemos Public Schools’ latest policy also specifically allows for tank tops, spaghetti straps, halter tops, yoga pants, leggings and visible undergarments. It also includes a lengthy prelude about how the policy was written in a manner designed not to reinforce stereotypes or marginalize students based on their race, gender identity or culture.

“Since students would be attending school in person for the first time in a long while due to the pandemic, it seemed like a perfect time to take a look at our dress code,” said Lara Slee, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Okemos Schools. “Students will be better able to engage in their learning because they won’t be worried about discipline or body shaming.”

Among the dress code restrictions removed at Okemos ahead of the fall semester: A “great deal” of language aimed at policing girls’ (and not boys’) bodies like references to skirts and short lengths, the width of straps on tank tops and the amount of cleavage that could be shown.

Winge said that school dress codes are often discussed among students in her college classes, particularly among freshman girls after they arrive at MSU from Lansing and Detroit having dealt with high school rules that barred visible bra straps, leggings, midriffs, cleavage — all forms of dress that could arouse heterosexual men and therefore pose a “distraction” in the classroom.

She has also heard several student stories of teenage girls being yanked from classes for not wearing bras or Black students being disciplined for wearing hoodies and sagging their jeans.

In Michigan, the state Department of Education only recommends that dress codes dictate a manner of dress that doesn’t disrupt the educational process or pose a health or safety risk. The rules should also always be written in “gender-neutral” language, according to state guidance.

Specific policies, however, are left to local districts to decide. And while removing pronouns and gender-specific rules from dress codes is a start, more work can always be done, Winge said.

“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet but I do think it helps to educate the educators. Maybe it should be necessary to have some education in dress, social justice, even sexuality,” Winge added. “These dress codes should probably be updated on a regular basis, but also with the inclusion of young women in the room to help them understand. If you just empower the women and have responsibility moments with the young men, then you probably won’t have a problem.”

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