Not a week goes by that we don’t hear about another dress code FAIL in the news. This week, James River High School in Midlothian, Virginia, is in the hot seat after being called out by a female high school student for unfair dress code enforcement.
The dress code debacle started when Lydia Cleveland, a James River senior, wrote a letter to school leaders in complaint over a dress code policy that was not fair to female students. Cleveland noticed the dress code dichotomy after an incident where girls on the school field hockey team were busted when they wore short athletic shorts to school on Spirit Day.
The kicker is, these “inappropriate” shorts are part of the school’s athletic uniform, but they violate school dress code rules.
According to Cleveland, “This is telling our bright young women that it is their fault when they are sexualized in the eyes of other people.”
This teenager is making a very important point on behalf of all female students that unfortunately has had to be made hundreds of times before. Sadly, a sexist dress code that discriminates against female students is nothing new. In many schools, it’s the norm. Sexist school dress codes have even been deemed part of the “War on Women.”
What really sticks out about this story is not simply the unfairness of a sexist dress code, but the second point Cleveland made in her well-written letter. “The fact that our school would have uniforms for a school sport that were then not acceptable for the dress code during the school day, that’s ridiculous,” she said.
And she’s right. It’s one thing to battle the constant gender discrimination we see in school dress codes, where high school girls are often shamed blamed for distracting boys with what they wear. But it’s a whole different animal when a school contradicts its own dress code policy and punishes students for it.
The big issue here is the underlying problem Cleveland may have accidentally uncovered in her dress code protest. A school like James River High has a strict dress code policy for female students. Again, this is nothing new. But the same school is also playing into the sexist culture we see in professional sports, where female athletes — and especially cheerleaders — are expected to wear much more revealing clothing than male players.
This bait and switch issue was brought to light two years ago in Florida, when high school cheerleaders were reprimanded for wearing skimpy uniforms to class that they were expected to wear on the field. And just weeks ago, high school cheerleaders at an Albuquerque school were sent to detention for wearing revealing uniforms that were considered appropriate for football games but not in the classroom.
This paradox is strange, and yes, it is still sexist — when you consider how talented and hard-working women are often treated as sex objects in professional sports. This dress code dilemma is a tough one to swallow, especially with such a double standard between classroom and athletic dress, but there is a simple solution. Schools can create a “uniform” uniform policy, where girls aren’t expected to dress one way on the field and another way in class. Not only are these sexist school dress code policies sending our girls mixed messages, but they are setting them up to fail.