As a child attending Catholic school, every day was surprisingly fraught with wardrobe choices for someone who had a uniform. I was far from the only person worrying about whether my outfit broke the school dress code — girls often gathered in the morning, after stripping off their rule-breaking sweatshirts, to scrutinize each other's very subtle makeup, or double-check their jewelry choices.
It wasn't until I got older that I realized only the girls gathered together to face this kind of pressure. The only problem boys at my school had to worry about was whether they'd forgotten to take off their hat before their first class, and for the most part, this wildly divergent treatment was ignored by both students and teachers. That was just the way things were.
Of course, teenagers these days are — rightfully — pretty much never willing to accept excuses for unfair differences in dress codes. During the school year, and especially around prom time, it can seem like there’s a new story every day about a school denying a student entrance to a dance, to a class, or to school in general.
While students these days are getting far more press about their schools’ sexist dress codes, the issues they face are the same ones I did while I was growing up — and the same ones I’m sure many of my fellow ’90s kids, Catholic- and public school-attending alike, faced too.
Let’s take a look at the reasons your outfit violated your school’s dress code.
1. Your Skirt/Dress Was Unacceptable
Maybe you violated the old "the skirt must be two inches longer than your fingertips" rule. Maybe, if you were a Catholic school kid like me, you didn't tuck in your shirt, so your skirt looked shorter. Maybe your skirt or dress had a small slit on the side that (gasp) showed some of your thigh. Maybe you didn't wear shorts underneath, and boys conspired to look up your skirt, and for some reason that got you in trouble.
Or maybe, like a San Antonio teen whose mother was told to bring her a pair of pants to wear under her completely normal tunic dress, you were tall and couldn't find anything that covered your entire body, which seems to be what people want.
2. You Showed Your Shoulders
You were hot one day and wore a tank top, or took your jacket off in class. The next thing you knew, boom — an angry school administrator was telling you to cover up or go home.
Dress codes that ban girls showing their shoulders often have one reason for doing so: Those scandalous shoulders are "distracting" to boys. Despite protests, this rule crops up each year at various high schools, who put their own spin on it, from mandated shoulder strap thicknesses to requiring girls to wear a jacket over a sundress or be kicked out of class.
The real solution: Teach boys and men to stop sexualizing women's bodies, because we should never have hit the point where shoulders are being considered too risqué.
3. Your Boobs Were Too Big
I hit DD-cups in my sophomore year of high school. Maybe you did too. Maybe you had to attend gym classes and had to wear sports bras that didn't compress your chest. Maybe you had trouble finding correctly fitting shirts that didn't ride up, or didn't get stretched out.
Maybe you, like an honor roll teen who was suspended during the vital days leading up to graduation (and, according to her, nearly arrested) in May for wearing a shirt with a wide scoop neckline that school administrators allege showed her lower back, were denied life-changing merits you earned.
4. People Saw Your Skin
I remember the exhaustive list of prom dress rules, and amazingly, my school seemed to have just as many rules for the boys, for once. But that's not the case with plenty of current prom dress codes. Maybe at your prom, you were told you needed to find a shawl to cover up. Maybe you were told you were allowed to stay out of the goodness of an administrator's heart, despite "looking slutty." Maybe you were denied entry at the door.
Nowadays schools seem to be engaged in a war on cut-outs, doing things like banning dresses that show slices of skin just days before prom, after many have bought their outfits, or drawing up condescending fliers that praise girls like well-trained dogs if they wear entirely body-covering dresses.
5. Your Pants Were Wrong
Maybe your jeans had rips. Maybe your jeans were "too tight," aka were not the baggy glories of the '90s that bunched up around your sneakers and basically looked like you were wearing pool noodles on your legs. I was born too late to be pulled into the school administrators versus yoga pants and leggings fight, but it seemed like whether girls at my school wore skirts or pants, they were wearing them through a minefield.
6. You Wore Jewelry
Maybe your necklaces rested on your cleavage. Maybe you had "too many" bracelets. Maybe your rings were too eye-catching. My high school had a fairly free policy when it came to jewelry, but my Catholic middle school banned everything save religious medals and cross necklaces. Why? Who knows, but I bet if I asked, the word "distracting" would come up.
Unfortunately, this policy isn't limited to the U.S. In June 2016, news broke that a New Zealand teen had been forced to cut off a thin silver bangle her father had given her before he died. Because the bangle was too small to take off over her hand, she had been wearing it to school, and despite her mother explaining her extenuating circumstances, the school promised further action if she didn't remove it, and in the end, she had to enlist a family friend to cut it off.
7. You Had A Body And People Are Sexist
Well, this is it. The crux of the matter — the whole entire simple truth. The only reason girls are kicked out of class for wearing everyday clothing and accessories is sexism, plain and simple. Criticizing women and girls for wearing what they want to wear because those items are "distracting" to men is rape culture encouragement of the highest order. It starts from birth, and results in things like horrifically demeaning workplace dress codes for women.
School dress codes can be sensible. School dress codes fueled by and tailored to indulge sexism are not.