Dress Coded: An Education on (unnecessary) Sexualization


When one Illinois middle school cluelessly decided to ban leggings & yoga pants because they were “distracting to the boys”, they probably didn’t have any idea it would be the catalyst to a national conversation about dress codes in school.

I mean, dress codes are like, so un-controversial. Until now.

Now, all sorts of interesting stories are surfacing. Girls wearing the same regulation gym outfits, but the curvier ones are getting dress-coded. Tall girls getting dress-coded for short garments, even though they’re finger-tip length, while short girls seem to not draw the same leg-bearing ire. One girl getting sent home from prom for wearing pants. Another girl was sent home from her homeschool prom because male chaperons said her dress was “causing impure thoughts”…for the teenage boys, of course.

So… Many interesting stories indeed.

The leggings ban irked me immediately for two reasons. The first being that these girls are in middle school, which means they are 11-14. Stop making them out to be devilish little nymphets, you creepy Humbert Humberts. These girls are not wearing yoga pants/leggings to show off the prepubescent shapeliness (ha!) of their backsides. The main reason girls (and adult women!) wear yoga pants is because they are heaven compared to the alternative:

Traditionally “cute”clothing for young women are notoriously restrictive and often painful.

The following images are from IMPRESSION, a photo series that shows what women wear, by the imprints left on their skin .  Here’s what form-fitting jeans look like:

jeans 2 impression jeans impressionjeans 3 impression








Does that look comfortable to you?  Because it looks pretty damn painful to me.

Keep in mind that loose or baggy clothing for girls is neither “popular” nor “attractive” and even borderline socially unacceptable. Professional women: would you show up to the office in a baggy pantsuit? No? Then why would these girls show up to school in baggy jeans?

(This is a bit off topic but…) I really bothers me how schools insist that girls wear bras (this starts at, like, age 8-14 when girls start budding. Many girls and/or their moms have embarrassing stories of female teachers quietly pulling them aside, and delicately suggesting that she get a training bra), but then simultaneously decree that bra straps are inappropriate. This is like insisting all boys must wear socks, but the tops of socks sticking out of the shoes are inappropriate.  It’s just… so arbitrary.

bra 1 impression bra 2 impression

Anyway, back to my point: the (un)comfort of women’s clothing. Obviously girls are going to pick yoga pants/leggings over form-fitting jeans that cut off the blood flow in the hips. It’s not about looking “sexy”. It’s about comfort. To twist this innocent reason around and treat these girls as if they are temptresses is incredibly disrespectful.

The second reason the leggings ban irked me was the “reasoning” behind it.

It’s “distracting to the boys”

Ugh. Every sane person on the internet immediately called bullshit on this incredibly sexist statement. The basic and very valid counterargument:  Girls clothing is not and should not be responsible for boys’ behavior.  I’m actually not going to go too deep into this. I know if you’re reading my blog then you probably understand & agree with the counterargument. I wanted to take this conversation in a bit of a different direction;


It’s yet another reminder, and reinforcement, that a girl’s appearance is more important, and demands more attention, than her other, non-visible qualities. You know, qualities like intelligence, perseverance, athletic ability, tenacity, creativity, a hard work ethic… attention to those attributes seem fade away rather quickly once an inch of skin is exposed.

Instead, it teaches her to view herself in a sexualized gaze, from an outsider’s point of view. At an increasingly young age, getting dressed in the morning turns from “does teal clash with yellow?” to “is this too much shoulder? Can someone see down this shirt? Would someone be able to look up this skirt on the stairs? What happens when I sit or bend over? I should test that.”

It’s not necessary a bad way of thinking when getting dressed. But it’s a pretty damn insidious sign of something ugly in our society, when middle-school girls are worrying about people looking down their shirts, and adjusting what they wear because of it.

And schools, the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our kids the importance of education, teach the opposite when they pull a girl out of class because her tank top straps are only two inches wide, not the three inches regulation. It doesn’t matter if she’s the valedictorian working towards the Ivy Leagues. If one day her shirt rides up a bit too much (maybe it shrunk unexpectedly in the wash?), she could get sent home to change (perfect attendance award? who cares!).


Female bodies are not public art.

They are not for your viewing pleasure.

Or viewing displeasure.

Schools are teaching girls, at a very, very young age, that they are on-display, and that is not ok. They’re normalizing some pretty scary behaviors that women must put up with almost every day:

  • receiving unsolicited comments from complete strangers on clothes and/or appearance
  • fielding “suggestions” from others on how dress, apply makeup, or even style hair
  • being forced to change clothes because someone in an authority position demands it
  • experiencing the unwanted & unnecessary sexualization of her body by older persons
  • responding to all of the above with compliance and politeness

Not only that, but for women, the feeling of being watched is unsettling but very common. I feel on-display when I’m waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. I feel on-display when I’m at the gym. I feel on-display at the grocery store… the list could go on. Usually it’s because I see the leers, the quick up-down flick of the eyes, the possible mental-undressing (many guys have told me apparently this is a common, almost knee-jerk mental reaction, to imagine a woman’s clothes off? Idk, let me know in the comment box). Its pretty jarring to hear that some schools have become one of those places that treat girls like they are objects on display.

I think what we’re hearing online is girls expressing that the strange, inconsistent enforcement of the dress codes is sexualizing them against their will. I’m pretty sure every single private schoolgirl has been subjected to some crass “naughty schoolgirl” joke, or unwanted attention, due to their uniforms.

It’s not the girls.

It’s not their uniforms.

It’s the outsider’s gaze sexualizing  them.

Right now schools seem to be doing a really good job of teaching girls being female in public means their bodies are on display for scrutiny. And schools are doing a really bad job of teaching boys that staring is rude (to put it lightly).

Until this changes in schools, I highly doubt the more mature, serious variations of unwanted sexualization – street harassment, sexual assault, and victim-blaming – will ever fully disappear.

All I have to say for now is:

If you’re a teenage girl in high school, it will all be over soon. You will graduate (or exit with grace), and enter the real world where nobody cares if leggings show the shape of your butt, because everybody wears leggings and everybody has butts. And there is nothing inherently sexual with either of those things.


182 thoughts on “Dress Coded: An Education on (unnecessary) Sexualization

  1. Such a nice thing to hear from someone with experience. I thankfully only have two years of school left but I wish someone could’ve told the teachers and some of the girls I know this years ago! Kudzi

  2. Restrictions on dress codes are really becoming so absurd. In my school, there’s no leggings, yoga pants, sweatpants, white pants (or any other color than navy, black, or khaki), and non-collared shirts. We also cannot unbutton it and expose any other shirts inside. They set so many rules, especially for the girls. I mean I agree that there should be a dress code set. The rules should apply to girls who wear those short shorts, short skirts, and very revealing clothing. It should also be applied to those guys who sag all the way towards their knees. But I disagree with the idea of ruling out leggings, yoga pants, colored pants, normal shorts, and sweatpants. I honestly think that leggings and yoga pants do not reveal anything. If it’s a “distraction to the education”, it is their problem. Teenage boys will be teenage boys. I think people should dress as comfortably as they want because they’re in school for at least 7 hours. But it should not reveal too much at the same time.

  3. Reblogged this on thoughts thunk at the speed of light and commented:
    Cherchez le fille. Not on my watch. Read this. Don’t be a misogynist dick. Don’t pretend rape culture isn’t a thing. Don’t be a creepy Humbert. Don’t teach the children self-loathing. That’s what early adulthood is for. And early adulthood (21-24 years) is when you’re legally allowed to drink the loathing away and CHALLENGE the norm and figure out what you believe about your self and what’s between your legs, which is your business. Not ANYONE else’s.

  4. Dress is the most powerful non-verbal communication and the vocabulary is often not understood by the dresser. Much liek a person who misuses big words.

  5. This will always be an interesting debate: what is and isn’t appropriate in different settings? It encompasses things like personal taste, modesty, decorum, good judgement, freedom of choice, and who has the right to tell someone else what they can and can’t wear.
    With over 7 billion people on this earth, I guess you’d get at least 4 billion different answers to each.
    For me personally, in a public place I don’t want to see anyone’s underwear. The rest is a matter of personal taste and none of my business. Though I do reserve the right to privately thumbs-up or thumbs-down the choices of others!.

  6. I agree, this is the objectifying of women and teaching women at young ages to place high value on what they look like for the sake of others and not on what is right for them.

    However, we have to be clear when talking about women and young girls. Yes, grown women should be allowed to dress according to individual tastes, situations, etc., but girls, young girls, should be guided by the influence of and discussion had with their parents. Because, the home is in essence where their thought processes and feelings about themselves and the world begin to take shape. But really, yoga pants/leggings being worn by children is a distraction? Well, it shouldn’t be.

  7. “imagine a woman’s clothes off?” For the tally: “Yes,” I think that happens a lot, but “No,” I’m not sure of it.
    “It’s the outsider’s gaze sexualizing them.” Please also remember how many movies & t.v.shows we’ve seen finagling just such a viewpoint {trillions have been spent}; it becomes a automatic thought, (enjoyable, even) – very hard to undo or even see clearly.

  8. Thought provoking post, I always like to read as many differing opinions as I can, so I can learn about how others think. It is an ongoing dilemma, complex in that there is no one best style for everyone. The women’s clothing issue is a hot topic, and you have some good points. Women should dress in what is comfortable for themselves, and NOT worry about what others think. I have a 10 Y/O daughter, and she wears a school uniform (T-shirt) as required for all by the school. I think that is the best way to deal with the issue for young girls.
    As for grown, adult women, the fashion industry & society seems to think all women are skinny, glam model types, and they are not! That is a lot of the problem, the over sexualization of women in society now is not good! Women should be able to dress the way they like, and yes, it is not polite for men to stare, but there are 2 factors that need to be taken in to account. Some women do dress like that because they WANT the male attention, but that is a whole other can of worms. The other issue is that us men are wired to be visual creatures, and the sight of a beautiful woman just is exciting for men to see, that’s just the way men are, and that will never change! Women really should think more about that when they chose the clothing they wear. The visual stimulation factor however is NOT an excuse or a green light for men to behave in an improper or violent manor towards women! I say that because that does not mean men should ogle women like some of them do( I know I am guilty of that once in a while) But women sometimes forget to think of that fact about us men when you put on the clothing you want to wear. So that is really a two way street!

    The clothing style I REALLY think is stupid beyond all mention is when boys and men where those stupid looking pants that hang off the crack of your ass, showing 3″ of your boxers!!! That is the most stupid looking non fashion their ever has been! Gee Whizz!!! PULL YOUR PANTS UP, & Buy yourself a belt and some properly sized clothing that is not 4 sizes too big!!! That is gross!!! Grow up……..

  9. I am a 17 year old girl and our school isn’t uniform for people in their final year which is currently me. The teaching staff had a talk to us on one of the first weeks saying that the wanted us to look professional and tidy at school. I had a huge problem for a few reasons, one professional clothing is generally slightly more uncomfortable and if I am going to be stuck at a desk for basically 6 hours straight I want to be reasonably comfortable, secondly professional attire is far more expensive and finally if the P.E teachers can turn up to school in trackpants and running attire why can’t we????

    They quickly took bad the statement saying we needed to ensure our clothing choices are appropriate for school. Which to me is a very vague guideline because what is appropriate clothing for me may be no where near the idea of some else.

  10. In my school girls wear see through leggings like its ok to show off their thongs and butt cheeks to everyone. Guys sag their pants and show off the outlines of their cracks. Both wear skinny jeans that dont fit, or really baggy pants. Sometimes their flab hangs out and they cant sit without people seeing their anatomy. People look like their clothes are painted on sometimes. And thats with dress code. This whole thing is a big debate in my school. If we stopped pretending like it’s ok to wear anything we want in any setting then this wouldnt be an issue. People must understand that just because you wear something doesnt mean you should. Get over yourselves and stop acting like the judgments people make of thw way you present yourself os societies problem and take what you wear into account

  11. It’s all a version of the Taliban outlawing white socks on women because they created impure thoughts in [presumably otherwise] pure minded Muslim men. Dress codes are are in varying degrees all some sort of nazifashion outlook, some a little more realistic than others, all ignoring human creativity and freedom as foundations of social expression.

  12. I enjoyed reading your blog. I especially enjoyed challenging people to expand their definition of “strong” in regards to women. Great posts.

  13. The school obviously did not consider the validity of the arguments and the impact it would have had on girls. Just becuase boys have “impure thoughts” doesnt mean girls should be forced to dress up differently. We men have a biological urge for the visual that’s true. But it should be us who should control our eyes and thoughts and not the women, granted that the women dont go all out to attract unnecessary attention. Why didnt the school set out to educate the boys on how women should be viewed and thwir beauty to appreciated beyond the physical realm? There have been so many cultures in out history where women were exposed or naked and with little clothing and yet those men in those times werent going around with hard ons and raging sexual thoughts. Its our perception which is the problem. And in some sense, the media and magazines play a big part to blame as well.

  14. The problem isn’t how restrictive the dress code is, but how loose it is. You are presenting the options as “sexy outfit 1,2 or 3”. A dress code should be excessively restrictive for boys and girls. By this I mean the dress code for boys and girls should be khaki slacks and a white button down shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked in. No skinny jeans, no yoga pants no nothing that is not khaki slacks. No low cut shirts, no belly shirts no open shirts no nothing that is not a white button down shirt buttoned all the way to the neck. One set of rules for both girls and boys. One set of rules with no wiggle room for trying to highlight your sexuality. No wiggle room for girls or boys.

    School is for learning. It is not a fashion show. It is not a meat market. School is for learning and having to bother with acceptable dress codes is distracting from that. If the students want to express them selves at school it should be with reading writing and arithmetic, not by competing to see who can best sexualize themself.

  15. Pingback: Dress Coded: An Education on (unnecessary) Sexualization | Random Fool in Thought

  16. So because baggy clothes are unnattractive they shouldn’t be worn? Didnt you just say they aren’t devilish little nymphets? You seem to have said they arent looking to attract attention, so thats a total contradiction. And socially unacceptable? Good message youre sending…

    • Many schools will dress code you for wearing baggy clothes as “inappropriate” because they are “too casual” for school.
      Speaking from first hand experience.
      There’s also a LOT of room between wanting to dress attractively (attractively does not automatically indicate trying to be SEXUALLY attractive) and “nymphet.”

    • I think what she is getting at is that “baggy clothes aren’t popular”. As much as every teenage girl says they don’t care, they usually do.

  17. Lots of interesting thoughts here, as well as other places over the internet. Dress code/modesty has become a very interesting issue for me lately, one in which I have hardly reached conclusions, and issue which I am certainly willing and eager to gather more information about. However, there was one particularly striking thought that occurred to me whilst reading your post (which was, by the way, highly intriguing): who are we, as women, to declare how the male brain does or doesn’t operate? Your claim about women’s clothing having nothing to do with the behavior of men was interesting…perhaps how women dress doesn’t directly affect men’s behavior, but what about their thoughts? An article expressing the overall absurdity and lack of reason for school dress code would mean much more to me coming from a male.

  18. Strength is not measured by how little you can get away with wearing without being arrested. I am a strong, single working mother of 3 teenagers. I live in the real world, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, however if I had a nickel for every time I said “Leggings are NOT pants!”, I could forego the overtime. This is not MTV, this is planet earth, and I don’t want a bunch of perverts ogling and harassing my daughters. Leggings were meant to be worn under a long shirt or a skirt, not over a thong with a midriff. Yoga pants are called yoga pants because they’re meant for YOGA!!! Can we PLEASE get some class in this country without crying sexism!!!???

  19. i get those marks when i lie down on a couch, a pillow, a comforter, or just in my clothes. it’s not tortuous in getting those indents.

  20. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to tell others how to dress. I buy my children’s clothing, not their teachers. I think young boys should be taught self control and respect for women no matter how they dress. Maybe some of the teachers in schools or management in businesses should stop assuming that leggings are distracting to students and coworkers. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the teachers or authority figures in work places that are distracted because of their way of thinking. I think it’s harassing to dictate to anyone about how to dress.

  21. I think the only argument that should be considered is that maybe it is inappropriate to be wearing skin tight clothing to school- and that’s it. Doesn’t matter about the boys, or comfort or sexuality. We are a pretty lax society and that’s great but I don’t think it is a problem to set some kind of guideline. Same goes for boys walking around with their underwear out- or if they want to walk around in leggings etc. Eventually these kids will hopefully go out into the real world and get a good job and guess what there are dress codes. Most if not all professional employers will not allow you to wear leggings and yoga pants into the work place. School isn’t a professional place but why not let them (boys and girls) start learning that there are different places where certain clothing might not be appropriate? I mean they don’t have to wear baggy clothing they can still dress nice!

  22. This is an article that outlines my experience as a catholic high school student for the last four years and a christian school student for nine years before that perfectly. From male teachers pointing out a missing button half way down my blouse to the constant accusation that my skirt is too short because I am thin and can’t find a skirt that is four and not 5.5 inches above my knee, and altering my skirt is also against the rules so I can’t make it fit. So now they have decided that all girls must wear shorts or pants (and they are considering removing the shorts option for girls as well) but there is no regulation change in response to guys shirts always being un-tucked or they’re shorts being worn around their thighs. I am currently the first girl in the last 90 years to ask/be allowed (I don’t know if others have asked before me) to wear pants to graduation as long as my white pants aren’t see through and its infuriating that that is a regulation, like I am going to wear see through pants at graduation UNDER MY GOWN… 😛 So thank you for writing about this, it’s an issue that no one seems to be able to make heard at schools because we are just “sex driven teens who don’t know what is best for us” -_- and I appreciate you writing on our behalf.

  23. Reblogged this on Women As Commodities and commented:
    A seriously interesting read on how it’s not about what women wear, but how the outside gaze of society has sexualised what women wear. Here’s a snippet:

    “I’m pretty sure every single private schoolgirl has been subjected to some crass “naughty schoolgirl” joke, or unwanted attention, due to their uniforms.

    It’s not the girls.

    It’s not their uniforms.

    It’s the outsider’s gaze sexualizing them.”

    Take a look!

  24. Posts like this seem to suggest something. Girls should be allowed to wear whatever they want without regard for anything. I’ll show half my breasts and if boys stare at me they are the rude ones. This shows a lack of respect for people.

    Its best to meet somewhere in the middle. Teach both sexes to respect each other. The boys not to stare and girls to be considerate of that reaction.

    I would hate to live in a world where we can’t offer suggestions to others or where we disregard respect.

    • I would have to agree. There seems to be a “me generation” style of thinking whereby people feel they have the right to do and wear whatever and expect no consequences. Dress codes have always existed in societies and cultures, they play an important role teaching, showing and expressing respect, self-respect and values. School is for learning not lounging 😊

  25. Reblogged this on deborahgaffney and commented:
    It seems as if the entire world wants to give the males of our species a “get out of jail free” for their behavior by saying if the girls wouldn’t dress that way… Will someone please stop the madness! Each person must accept responsibility for their own behavior. You are supposed to be civilized. Stop passing the buck and treat others the way you would want to be treated. Great blog! Re blogging on Deborah

  26. I just wanted to share some of my experience first hand. While I was going to school I always saw glimpses of these girls wearing what appeared to be burn-out (really thin, translucent) leggings. One time I was walking up the staires with a friend and looked up suddenly, again one of these girls was lounging on the railing, and I saw her neon yellow underwear peeking through the light breezy fabric. It suddenly made it very awkward for me & my friend and the other people that started to stream up the staircase. I didn’t like it at all mostly how I would always see this girl with burn-outs shirts and a bra. It irked me beyond belief and I actually ended up going to speak to the Vice Principal (she was a really great help!). I understand people like to wear things they feel comfortable but I would prefer some common sense on safe guarding yourself at least an light undershirt, slightly thicker material or change the comfort of leggings for shorts or sweats. Has anyone else had any such awkward moments?

  27. leggings are appropriate anywhere and males should wear them too ( I do . no problem ). They feel great, they look great, and sometimes offer support to aching legs or, like mine, water retentive legs.

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