Is the MHS Dress Code Sexist?
Updated: Oct 15
School dress codes have become a hot-button issue nationwide, resulting in student-led protests that feature signs like, “I can dress myself,” or “Teach boys focus, not girls to cover up.” Mishawaka High School has seen its own rebellion against the school’s dress code recently because students have returned to in-person learning with angst about the policy.
Many find it discriminatory, disturbing, given its underlying sexism (specifically during the months of hot weather), and outdated. “It’s just not up to date,” said Sophia Dentino, a junior at MHS. From administration to the students, it seems everyone knows someone whose personal style has been compromised by the dress code, and everyone has an opinion.
Sarah Burns, a junior, said, “I got dress coded as soon as I walked in the door. I was wearing a crop-top and was late to Orchestra because of it. You could barely see my stomach, like at all. They [administration] stopped me at the front doors and said I had to change, but I didn’t change. I got a sweatshirt, which I only wore in the hallways.”
Others with personal experiences, like Isabelle Bradley, a junior, said, “Certain teachers have come up to me and said, ‘You need to change, or else you’re going to get coded by another teacher.’ It’s always been a male teacher that will warn me, ‘You’re going to get coded if you don’t change,’ and they’ve been putting ‘mercy’ on me for not coding me.”
“I personally think that I am able to get away with a lot more things. Girls with more feminine features are targeted because it’s more noticeable. I don’t have as much, so I feel like I get away with a lot more than I should...I’ve definitely come here with crop-tops on, and that’s where the bias comes in,” she added.
Isabelle Santa is also a junior who shares similar views to Bradley’s. She said, “...I don’t think it’s [the school dress code] equally fair to different body types. I think girls who are bigger - more developed - are more likely to get dress-coded. Smaller girls, I think, can get away with more. It’s a major problem.”
It’s a problem that can lead to body image distortion. Santa has admitted she’s never been dress-coded herself, but her compliance with the dress code is because, “I’m too afraid to dress how I want to. I feel like I have a higher chance of possibly getting in trouble.”
“If a girl or a guy is confident in their body because they’ve been working out or something, they should be able to show it. Nobody’s going to say anything. It doesn’t make the opposite gender aroused like they [administration] say it does,” said Marissa Rowe, another junior.
But the dress code isn’t just about clothing. As Dentino discovered, certain hair accessory items are considered against the policy, even when modified to comply with code.
“This one time, during lunch, I was wearing a bandana. I wore that bandana months before, so I thought it’d be fine. It wasn’t.”
She explained, “I got yelled at to remove it from my head, as it was wrapped around covering some of my hair. I took it off and folded it up to wear it as a headband since those aren’t illegal according to school rules and got yelled at yet again.”
“The people around me and even the person who dress coded me all mentioned the unjustness of some of the rules, yet nothing was or has ever been done about it,” Dentino pointed out.
This being said, the looming question that many are asking is this, Why has nothing been done about the dress code? Sophomore Dean of Students, Mrs. Laura Sigler, emphasized that things have been done to adjust the dress code,
“We have tried to make concessions with students over the years to accommodate fashion trends.
“Ten years ago, facial piercings and tattoos weren’t allowed and no holes were allowed at all above the knee (even between fingertip length and knee). Administration has adapted the dress code to allow more freedom of expression for students and keep up with current fashion trends, while maintaining a differentiation between home (casual) and work (nicer) wear,” Sigler explained.
Sophomore, Tylan Paczkowski, is “firmly against the dress code.” But he admits, “I do believe dress codes serve a purpose, and that’s the sad part. The fact that we need a dress code is a problem in and of itself. Women are not the problem, it’s the boys - not men - but boys who can’t control themselves.”
He included, “Perhaps they [those in favor of the dress code] have had a situation in their past that has them wanting to keep others from going through that same situation [harassment, assault, etc, because of their clothing]. So, I think it’s important to take both sides into consideration…(but) The extent of the dress code is absurd.”
Rowe agreed with Paczkowski, “If a girl is showing her shoulders or a little bit of her chest, she’s not going to become a prostitute. That’s what they [administration] are thinking, and it’s so not true…”
Speaking from the administrative perspective, Sigler said, “I have a love/hate relationship with (the) dress code. I think it’s important to have and uphold, but it’s one of my least favorite conversations to have with students. I don’t enjoy pulling students aside to have a conversation with them about their clothing choice.”
Ultimately, there is growing speculation that the school’s current dress code is a prime embodiment of sexism. Honors English teacher, Mrs. Christie Buchmann, said, “The dress code is inherently sexist because the focus is heavily driven to monitor female attire… Boys don’t have a lot of style options, young women, however, have a ton of fashion choices.”
She continued, “One that really bothers me is the fingertip length rule because, if you’re ... my daughters, they have very long arms. So in order to meet the fingertip length, they’d have to be wearing almost Bermuda shorts… On the other hand, women who have shorter arms can get away with incredibly short skirts. So, maybe we need to determine a style as opposed to a fingertip.”
Her students, like Ana DeVries, passionately agreed, almost word-for-word. “Yes, I don’t think it [the MHS dress code] is blatantly, purposefully sexist, because there isn’t a separate dress code for girls and guys. I just think that the way that it’s built attacks girls' dress a whole lot more than guys’.
“I have guy friends who have worn shorts a lot shorter than any shorts I've ever worn, and they haven’t been dress-coded once… Although it may not be purposefully or blatantly sexist, it is inherently sexist,” said DeVries.
But, as Buchmann clarified, “Having said that, an issue that I see is that the females in the building are not respecting themselves… At some point, you have to make a conscious decision about ‘what do you want people to notice first about you when you walk in the room?’
“I do feel that at times, the problem with the dress code is really a personal choice...If you’re going to walk in and not value yourself, and not want to be seen as more than just bits and pieces, then- you need to do your due diligence. You need to think about what you wear, not because of the dress code, but because it’s a respect thing.”
In addition, Sigler shared her viewpoint, “I do not think the dress code is sexist; however, I do think that some rules apply more to one gender than another. When we look at the rules overall, there are the same number of rules that apply more often to one gender or the other.
“For example, we rarely have to have a conversation with boys about shorts being too short; similarly, we rarely have to have a conversation with girls about pulling their pants up so their underwear doesn’t show. Spaghetti strap tank tops usually apply more to females; muscle/cut off shirts typically apply more to males. Hats and hoods are applicable to both genders,” illustrated Sigler.
Even still, the continuing disagreement over whether or not the dress code is sexist prompts many to think about the possibility of transitioning to a school uniform to squash controversy both immediately and effectively.
“If you look at just about any other country in the world, they all wear uniforms...They all look the same and the idea is that we take the focus off of what we’re wearing, so that we can concentrate on education,” said Buchmann.
“We’re really unique in that we want to be one of the countries that doesn’t have a uniform policy… What students don’t understand is that they have control over that. If you dress as though you respect yourself, always, we won’t have to have a dress code. But, as with most things in society, a few people screw up and ruin it for everybody,” she added.
Junior Dean of Students, Mrs. Jessica Mann said, “I would support a school uniform.” Her opinion comes from observations early on in her career.
“I started my career in New Orleans where every school has a uniform, but I didn’t have experience with uniforms as a student… I assumed kids would hate the uniforms, but that’s not what I found--most students liked not having to think about what to wear, never getting dress-coded, and not having to spend money on the latest fashions.”
As for the present-day, Mann said, “Right now, the dissonance between what is available for kids to buy and the MHS dress code causes kids to get dress-coded and that is often a negative interaction. I don’t like that.”
When Burns was dress-coded, she said she only wore her sweatshirt in the hallways because, “...the teachers don’t really care. It’s just the admin, mostly.” This supports the idea that some people care more about the dress code than others.
Buchmann summarized, “The other issue I have with the dress code is that it’s just not enforced. I have kids come to me by third block and they’re wearing tube tops. I have to make a conscious decision, ‘Do I do what I’m supposed to do, which is enforce the dress code, or do I put myself in an adversarial position with my student when two teachers failed before me?’
“...The problem with the dress code is that it breaks down when not everybody’s on the same page, when people refuse to enforce the rules. It pits student against student, student against teacher, teacher against teacher, and nothing good comes from it...I don’t want to have adversarial interactions with students.”
The overall consensus amongst those in the school is not to abolish the dress code in its entirety, but to adjust it so that its policies are more up to date with the 21st century, because nobody likes the negative reactions or interactions it creates. As Dentino stated,
“Fashion is an ever-changing industry.”
Mann sympathized with students like Dentino, “I understand that what is sold in stores creates a situation that can make it hard to adhere to (the) dress code at school. That said, stores are out to make money, not help students dress appropriately for school.”
Buchmann explained the situation best when she said, “It’s a very complicated topic because human beings are complicated… I don’t have the answers necessarily, but I do know that there are things that aren’t fair and equitable when you start looking at measurements of the body.”
Students, (teachers, and administrators), if you are intrigued and want to further explore this topic, Ana DeVries invites you to a school board meeting on Wednesday, November 10th, from 6 to 8 pm (location: TBD). There, she, Sarah Burns, and other students will be presenting their thoughts about a few of the dress code policies here at MHS; all are welcome to attend and share opinions.
All image copyright belongs to the respective owners.