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  • Jo-Ann Finkelstein, PhD (for The Feminist Parent)

When Masks Are a Matter of Freedom but Girls' Outfits Are Not

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

My body my choice. No to mandatory masks!
Can you smell the irony?

Ugh dress codes!

I haven’t felt much like writing lately given the Covid resurgence and dire climate news. Like a lot of people, my mind is on the future of our kids and whether or not they will continue to miss out on key building blocks. So what is the point of writing about dress codes when we might be headed for the apocalypse? Well for one, we’ve got to have hope we’re not and that kids will be back in school and two, masks. The idea that masks are considered by some schools as “personal choice” (even as Covid is ravaging those schools) while something like, say, tank tops are not got me thinking about dress codes.

In the US more than half of schools still have dress codes. In recent years there has been increasing pushback and if you’ve been perusing social media lately you may have come across a letter that went viral by a Tennessee mother to the board of her daughter’s school. In it she points out the hypocrisy in allowing masks to be optional while forcing girls to adhere to “misogynistic” dress codes. Here’s what she said:

In light of the opt-out option related to the recently-announced mask mandate,” she noted, “I can only assume that parents are now in a position to pick and choose the school policies to which their children should be subject.

I therefore intend to opt out of [your dress code] policy and send my daughter to school in spaghetti straps, leggings, cut offs, and anything else she feels comfortable wearing to school. Please make a note that she is not, under any circumstances, to be dress coded, as I have clearly communicated my decision to opt out of this policy.

Why do we care so much what kids wear? Purportedly it's to establish an appropriate learning environment. But, in recent years, many school dress codes seem less focused on education and more on controlling girls with arbitrary and sexist rules. There are three main reasons schools employ dress codes.

1. Distraction:

The biggest reason cited for dress codes is to minimize distraction. While this is technically a gender-neutral rule, it's almost exclusively applied to girls, which, by the way is discriminatory and against the law. When a girl is told she can’t wear leggings, shorts above the knee, or a tank top because it's distracting to boys and male teachers, this is just another form of objectification and victim-blaming (not to mention heteronormativity): a teacher or school official looks at a girl, sexualizes her body or her attire, and holds her responsible.

Take 12 year-old Ari Waters who wore a sweet knee-length yellow dress to her school's dance. Ari was told she had to cover up because her dress was sleeveless. Her mother, perplexed, asked why that violated the school’s dress code. The answer they got left Ari feeling dirty and embarrassed. They were told that Ari’s bare arms were "sexual objects.” Dress codes don’t teach modesty. They teach girls to be ashamed of their bodies.

Claiming bare shoulders are "distracting" to boys makes it the girl’s “fault.” That’s sexist and frankly also unfair to boys. What does it say about our faith in boys if we imply they can’t learn or control themselves if there's a bare shoulder in the room? We want to ensure boys can learn without distraction but where is the concern for girls’ education? No one seems to consider the interruption to their learning process when they’re pulled out of class until their parents can bring another set of clothes, given an in-school suspension, or humiliated when they’re forced by the dean to "stand up and move around” to judge whether their breasts look appropriate, or to change into a shame-suit: bright red sweatpants and a neon yellow shirt that reads "Dress Code Violator” (you can’t make this shit up).

2. Protection

Schools often report they put dress codes in place for the safety of their students, particularly their female students. There is literally no relationship between clothing and assault. Girls and women and sometimes small children get catcalled, harassed, groped or raped in everything from bikinis to burqas. The onus should not be on girls to control male behavior and libido. And if we’re really concerned about students’ safety: MASKS.

3. Enforcing Gender

A sometimes more hidden reason for dress codes is to enforce gender. A teen boy in Texas was suspended last Winter for wearing nail polish, something that is perfectly acceptable for any of the girls in his school to wear. Demanding that girls and boys present differently is an example of adults needlessly forcing their values on kids. Gender self-expression is not found to affect learning and seems to be confusing only to adults these days so there is no educational value in enforcing a dress code that upholds a gender binary.

Sometimes there seems to be no reason at all. In May, The New York Times reported that a Florida school digitally altered yearbook photos of many of the girls’ attire to make them more "appropriate." I’m guessing there was no distraction or safety issues given that these were 2D pictures and school was over. Notably, none of the boys’ photos, including the one of the swim team in speedos, were altered.

By calling girls out, we're teaching them that their naturally developing bodies are shameful and require covering up. This is particularly true for curvier girls and girls of color who receive dress code violations far more often. And we're teaching them that even at school they can’t escape having their bodies sexualized. No child wants their teacher to look at them and see something sexual. The girls in the altered pictures felt sexualized and exposed.

Meanwhile, in the rest of society and much of the world, girls are told their appearance is their most important asset and should be flaunted. The Norwegian handball team was recently fined for refusing to wear skimpy bikinis while playing. Instead they wore form-fitting athletic shorts, much tighter and shorter than the men’s uniforms but apparently still not revealing enough for a woman.

Wherever girls turn they get the message that they exist to be looked at. If they’re sexualized, that’s not their problem. It's time schools stop asking girls to change and instead change their sexist ways. If masks are optional, surely "three fingers width of coverage on the shoulders" is as well. If ever there were a reason to mandate a dress code, stopping the spread of a virus that robs our children of a normal life is it.

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Max, Dad

Data Scientist

I learned a lot scrolling through your site. I'm most impressed by the idea of making sex and sexuality just a normal part of life  as kids grow up...because, well, it is.

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I found myself near tears several times, reacting to the sheer direct-hit for so many of the things I struggle with as a parent and as a woman. For better or worse, I'm not easily impressed but this is vitally important stuff addressed in a really useful way.

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I'm not a parent but man I wish my parents had this site when I was growing up. Or if it existed when I was a teenager I could have learned so much about all the destructive messages I was internalizing. It would have saved me a lot of pain

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I found the Feminist Parent when I was looking for help with teen sexuality for my older two. It's so helpful  for that but it's also giving me a lot of ideas for sharing info on gender (in)equality with my youngest two. Thanks! 

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