More school districts are adopting lenient dress code policies, The Wall Street Journal reports, allowing students to wear attire previously considered “taboo” such as short skirts and shorts, hoodies, and tops showing cleavage and midriffs.
The shift is being made in an effort to end body shaming and lift restrictions many say disproportionately target and police the female body, as well as the bodies of those identifying with a gender different from that assigned at birth or as non-binary.
Recent policy changes in at least 16 districts, including the Austin Independent School District, follow the “Oregon NOW model,” a model created by the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) that is gender-free and gives parents and students much more control over school attire.
While many people have pointed out strict dress code policies unfairly target the female body and contribute to rape culture by policing clothing considered “too distracting” for male students, other schools are moving toward implementing stricter regulations or considering requiring school uniforms. The latter policy has received criticism from some for being too burdensome on low-income families who cannot afford to pay for uniforms.
Still, the use of school uniforms may be on the rise. According to findings by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an increased number of public schools (21.5%) required school uniforms in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 13.8% a decade earlier in 2006.
On the other hand, dress codes, combined with zero-tolerance policies, often unfairly target black students. A report from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) that looked at schools in Washington, D.C., found high school dress codes, often subjectively applied according to gender-based stereotypes of how a girl should dress or behave, disproportionately target black girls.
In many cases, African American girls are removed from the classroom and even sent home for being deemed in violation of school dress codes. According to a 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky, dress code and other minor infractions disproportionately applied to black girls are “subjective and influenced by gendered perspectives.”
The NWLC report also found dress codes can contain highly subjective language to restrict clothing considered “too tight” or “too revealing,” a requirement that targets female students with curvier bodies who may be punished for wearing the same kind of clothing worn by another classmate.
Dress codes and grooming policies have also come under scrutiny for targeting black students who choose to wear their natural hair. Notably, a New Jersey student with dreadlocks was forced last year to cut his hair in order to participate in a wrestling match. To address policies unfairly targeting black students, states like California and New York recently passed legislation that would ban discrimination against natural hair in public schools.
With anti-discrimination legislation starting to take effect at the state level, it is likely a growing number of schools will enact policies to reflect changes accordingly.