Collarbone showing? Girls say school dress codes are sexist

From left, Lilly, 14, Violet, 12, and Jane, 16, Minor. The girls' father, Karel Minor, ran for school board on a platform centered around equality for girls.

Jane Minor was wearing a V-neck shirt in gym class when a teacher called her out for violating the school’s dress code, which prohibits low-cut tops. The boy next to her was wearing a similar tee. The teacher didn’t say a word.

A rising senior at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Minor received just a warning. But as far back as elementary school, she said, she and her friends have gotten busted for what they consider to be unfair and sexist dress code violations.

Shoulder straps too thin. Shorts and skirts too short. A sliver of bare midriff. Leggings. Bare shoulders. Bra straps.  With schools locked in fights over budgets, immigration, and weapons in the classroom, the cut of a collar or a peek of bare shoulder shouldn’t warrant a second look, let alone a reprimand. At least that’s the stand of a vocal movement of teen girls across the country who have started petitions, staged walkouts, made videos, and — often with their parents chiming in — used social media to criticize schools for body-shaming and promoting sexual harassment.

More than half of the nation’s public schools have dress codes, frequently with gender-specific guidelines, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit public policy think tank.  Some of the rules, critics say, seem so last-century, if that.

At Vista Murrieta High School in California, 25 girls were pulled from class after being told their dresses were too short. Some of the offensive hemlines posted on social media looked to be no more than an inch or two above the knee, while boys at the school were wearing shorts that exposed much more leg.

After a girl was sent home for an exposed collarbone at Woodford County High School in Kentucky, another student produced “Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code,” exploring the negative impact of the policies on girls’ confidence and self-esteem. It has had thousands of YouTube views.

Owen J. Roberts girls “get dress coded all the time, for things like having bra straps showing, when boys go around with underwear showing,” said Minor, 16. On Halloween, she said a friend got dress coded for a too-tight skirt, but a boy was wearing a skintight body suit “and that was not a problem for some reason.”

“Dress coding girls makes them feel bad about themselves,” said Minor. “especially when they thought they were dressing appropriately.”

The school’s guidelines take aim at boys, too, banning muscle shirts, saggy pants, and clothing with sexually suggestive messages, for instance. But girls say they get called out more often, and are made to feel like “boy bait.”

This spring, as temperatures rose along with hemlines, administrators at the northern Chester County high school reminded the 1,600 students of the dress code. The student run TV show, Paw Report, highlighted the rules in a satirical video that used the words “tramp” and “harlot,” creating a ruckus that resulted in the removal of the offensive words.

“Girls are told to change for the comfort of boys,” said Cassady Mayerson, 17, one of the producers. “They say it’s distracting for them and hurts their education, but really [boys] should be taught to pay attention in class and not gawk.”

She said dress codes teach “people that girls’ bodies are something to keep hidden and that it’s scandalous to show too much skin, even if it’s just your shoulders. It leads toward confidence issues and sets a standard in society on how girls should be seen and how they should behave.”

Cassady’s father, Ben, said he thought that his daughter’s video hit the mark. “Does it really make sense that if a girl’s bra strap is showing she is sent home for the day just so a boy doesn’t get momentarily distracted?” he asked.

Superintendent Michael Christian acknowledged complaints about the dress code, and has asked students to attend a meeting about the issue this summer. “We may make modifications,” he said.

He declined to say whether he thought girls suffered more under the regulations than boys, but noted that “we don’t want the clothing kids wear to be a disruption in class. The focus has to be on learning.”

The question may be, a disruption for whom? Students maintain that dress codes and other gender-informed practices reveal latent biases.

Karel Minor, father of Jane and two other girls, decided to run for a school board seat last spring mostly because he sensed gender inequity in the schools, including with the dress code. The head of Humane Pennsylvania, a network of animal welfare organizations, he was a first-time candidate who was successful in the primary as a Democrat.

“Some of these policies are literally from the last century,” said Minor, 48, whose daughters are 12, 14, and 16. Even in elementary school, Jane was told “she couldn’t wear shirts that she has worn for years because the straps were too thin.”

When he spoke to the administration, Minor said, he was told: ” ‘Boys might snap their straps.’

“We tilt our heads and wonder, ‘Why not talk to boys about not doing that, instead of the girls having to change a perfectly acceptable shirt?’ ” he said.

At Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia, students started an online petition in February to protest the school’s policy on prom dresses, which required students to either bring their gowns to school for approval or submit full-body shots, front and back. Administrators put the photos in a binder and took them to the dances to make sure the approved frocks were actually worn. The dresses may not reveal too much skin below the neck, on the back, and on the legs. Popular two piece styles were not allowed.

“Cleavage is a big thing for them,” said Amanda Lawson, student body president at Ryan, adding that if caught showing too much, girls were draped with a black graduation gown for the evening.

The student petition called the policy “degrading, arbitrary and unfair.”

“In today’s society, a woman’s body is constantly discriminated against and hypersexualized to the point where they can no longer wear the clothing that they feel comfortable in without the accusation and/or assumption that they are being provocative,” the petition read. “The dress code is sexist, and the harsh restriction and application are completely unnecessary.”

Lawson wrote on the petition that “I stand with my fellow students in our efforts for change.” In an interview, she said prom dresses can cost $500 to $600 and the best ones fly off the racks. Waiting for school approval is impractical, and a financial burden. If a student buys the dress and it’s vetoed, it can’t be returned.

Philadelphia Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said all archdiocesan high schools require students to dress modestly for the prom, but they don’t all demand pre-approval of dresses. At Ryan, students attend an assembly early in the year with slideshows of the right and wrong kinds of dresses.

Eight were vetoed this year, he said.

Jane Minor and other young activists at Owen J. Roberts say they will work with administrators next year to create a club that seeks solutions to problems such as racial slurs, gender equality, and dress codes.

“We just want to make sure that it is being followed for both girls and boys,” said Minor.

“I think as long as the clothing is appropriate and as long as everything is covered and not really drawing attention, students should be left alone to learn,” she added.