Why Are We Still Policing the Clothing That Females Wear?

This shirt may look modest, but it would probably be banned at many schools because it offers a glimpse of the collarbone, is cut below the bust line, and may even expose a shoulder. (Photo: AnnaTamila/Shutterstock)

It's prom season and that means schools around the country are reminding young women that no matter what they've accomplished this year in school, they will be judged on their physical appearance.

This is the time of year that schools release their standards for what kids should and shouldn't wear to prom. More often than not, these regulations are geared towards girls, with wording and imagery that suggests girls who would want to wear something other than what is deemed "appropriate" have questionable judgment and character.

In the latest inappropriate prom-related dress code issue, twitter user @LILwillingham snapped a pic of this image that was posted at Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Florida.

The message is loud and clear: Good girls wear "appropriate" dresses to prom; bad girls do not.

School dress codes focus primarily on girls

The school has since apologized for the inappropriate wording of the poster, but it certainly isn't the first time that girls have been judged for their prom and homecoming dance attire. At Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, administrators asked female students to stand against the wall during their homecoming dance. The young women were asked to touch their toes and lift their arms to determine whether their outfits were acceptable.

Take a look at this prom dress code document created by St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School in Louisiana. Of the 17 pages that expound upon the types of attire that are appropriate, only six sentences are directed to boys. (To be fair, the sixth sentence actually reads, "If you are bringing a date from another school, it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to make her aware of our dress code policy." So yeah, it's still directed at girls.)

It's not just happening at prom. According to this article in The Atlantic, the vast majority of schools in the country have dress code policies that cover what students can wear on a daily basis. Most of these contain a few sentences about the appropriate attire for boys along with pages and pages about what girls are allowed to wear in school.

Maggie Sunseri a middle-schooler in Versailles, Kentucky, made this YouTube documentary entitled, "Shame, A Documentary on School Dress Code," to shed light on the issue. According to the video, the girls at Sunseri's school, Woodland County High, are not allowed to show exposed collarbones, shoulders, or knees — even in the heat of Kentucky's spring and summer.

These types of incidents are not just isolated to school classrooms or events. Take the recent incident on United Airlines in which a gate agent denied boarding to two girls who were wearing leggings. The girls were flying on employee passes and yes, there are different rules for those who fly on free passes vs. paying customers. But the issue is more that United has a policy that specifically polices the wearing of leggings for girls but apparently allowed a man also flying on a free pass to wear shorts.

The explanation girls are often given for these types of dress code regulations is that when girls wear clothing that has been deemed "inappropriate," it makes it difficult for their male peers to pay attention at work or school or to behave themselves at the prom or to mind their own business on an airplane. What kind of message does this send to young girls? What kind of message does it send to young boys?

Why all the caveats?

When you take a girl out of the classroom and make her waste time finding different clothing because her shoulder or collarbone or knees are exposed, you are explicitly telling her that the education of her male peers is more important than hers. And you're telling both girls and boys that it's a girl's responsibility to keep herself covered up.

Why are we constantly telling young girls that they can be whatever they want to be ... as long as they dress the way they are told to dress? And as long as they aren't distracting to the boys.

School dress codes aren't new. They have been around in this country since the 1920s. And it's likely that teens — both boys and girls — have been fighting them since that time. I'm not trying to say that dress codes shouldn't exist, but I do think we all need to pay closer attention to why we keep telling girls what to wear. Is it really because the clothing is inappropriate for the event or activity?

Is this outfit really inappropriate for school?

Stacie Dunn posted this picture of her daughter along with the following comment:

"So this is my daughter at school today. I had to come to the school because according to her school principal what she is wearing is out of dress code and inappropriate for school," she wrote on her Facebook page. "When I got there I found a group of female students standing in the office due to being out of dress code also."

If schools really want to create a non-distracting environment for both their male and female students, they would do well to involve students in the creation of dress code policies that respect the choices and identities of all of their students.