Opinion: Three arguments to defend dress codes and why these do not apply

children in uniform

Dress codes and uniforms might have outlived their usefulness.

Photo: Bigstock

Uniforms and dress codes have been a part of school life for as long as we can remember. The reasons why uniforms became required are somewhat easy to fathom. People who favor the use of uniforms often say that it promotes class discipline and that it helps the family economy by keeping the students’ streetwear from excessive use. But despite this, uniforms could be obsolete soon.

Critics are challenging the idea that uniforms and dress codes bring only benefits to the school experience. They are opening the conversation to another topic now being examined in education, i.e., the gender bias underlying these dress codes.

Everyone who went to a school which required uniforms remembers at least one story about female students being reprimanded or even suspended for lacking half an inch in their regulated skirts, being sent home for wearing school gym shorts when there was no physical education class that day, or being forced to wear skirts when it's cold outside. These types of things happen even in all-girl schools.

We would think that in schools that have abolished the use of uniforms, the conversation would be different. Nonetheless, the instances in which female students are subjected to judgment about their choice of attire are still pretty common. However, their male counterparts do not have to bear similar experiences and judgments.

It is essential to clarify that male students are not exempt from the dress code; they can also be sanctioned if they violate the rules. In some cases, both men and women are affected by culturally biased regulations that target non-white physical features, like African American hair texture or Native American hairstyles and ornaments.

Despite this, we cannot ignore the underlying motivations of male dress codes vs. those for women: The rules for male students come from the need for order and cohesion. The rules for female students are rooted in a collective social intent to control the sexualizing of their bodies.

This argument can come across as wild for those who think that the dress code is a way to provide the student with a notion of discipline, order, and sense of belonging. But are these ideas achieved when the execution of dress code rules negatively affects female students disproportionately and alters their educational experience? Do the arguments defending scrutiny of female students have to do with their ethical education or more to do with factors foreign to them? What are some of the commonly used arguments to uphold the use of these rules that do not take into consideration the female educational experience?

1. The rules help maintain the school’s reputation

Image is instrumental to a school to secure the number of students needed to stay afloat. Education is one of the most difficult products to position, especially in the primary levels. The younger the student is, the more challenging it is to ask for parental trust in the school’s ability to teach them and help them grow academically and personally.

Uniforms and dress codes are one aspect of “educational branding” the schools use to appeal to parents. Even if on the scale of importance for school ranking, uniforms and dress codes fall lower than academic programs, teachers’ experience and credentials, technological resources, and educational innovation, uniforms and dress codes make a highly visible and impacting impression about school prestige.

There is no better vehicle for a school’s reputation than the testimony of its students. However, a school that charges their students with the responsibility to uphold that reputation through dress codes more than the quality of the learning is a school that lacks the qualifications to offer an integral, high-quality education.

To impose upon students a dress code that has the potential to disrupt their educational experience because the school wants to boost its image is to give students a burden that is not theirs, and this diverts them from their main task, which is learning.

2. Dress codes build character and prepare students for professional life

The workplace has its rules, and preparing young people to follow those rules is one of the primary purposes of education. Some jobs will have dress codes stricter than others, and some will require the daily use of uniforms. It is crucial for students to know how to accommodate these rules to integrate into the workforce fully. However, the use of school uniforms and dress codes may not be the best solution for them.

Uniforms and clothing regulations teach students obedience, not how to dress for future jobs. They learn more about that on those occasions in which they have to dress formally to present a school project or when they discuss with their parents the dress codes required in a specific workplace.

Even more questionable are the punitive measures associated with dress codes. Educational institutions that have punitive measures for dress code violations are not commonly open to discuss them transparently. The rules are written, but no one talks productively about them until a student gets in trouble for an alleged violation.

Even when the rules are written in the schools' student handbooks, institutions often apply these rules in highly subjective or strictly interpreted ways by school officials who are not open to discussions or disagreements by students or parents.

3. Uniforms and dress codes help avoid distractions and keep the school environment safe

This is hands-down the most damaging perspective about the need to maintain dress codes. Before explaining why, it is essential to clarify that ethical education and values are as important as the delivery of academic knowledge, and schools should focus on both of these elements. Students must learn about respect and adopt behaviors that uphold noble values and consideration for others.

That being said, to maintain a perspective that teaches male students to view their female classmates as distractions based on a judgment about their bodies and not as people with the same right to education and dignity as they, is not only unethical, it undermines the most fundamental purpose of education.

It also prioritizes the male educational experience over the female’s. When any school applies punitive measures associated with the judgment of a female student’s body, the school sends a clear message: They care more about the potential distraction of a male student incapable of seeing his classmate beyond her attire and form than the female student’s educational experience.

This practice is unsustainable; it damages the male students’ education as much as the females’. It denies men the acquisition of social and emotional intelligence that enables them to go beyond a vision that sexualizes their classmates in an educational environment that, ideally, should provide a safe space sheltering females from such unnecessary sexualization.

Ethical education fails when it does not teach the students to form a concept of personhood that applies to everyone regardless of attributes like race, sex, or gender. Students need a high concept of ethical behavior that helps them to create or contribute to a better work culture, later, more than any dress code can.

The objectives that educational institutions want to attain through the use of dress codes are still necessary. As teachers, we need to promote discipline, a sense of order, belonging, and duty. But we also need to question if dress codes and the way we enforce them are getting us to those objectives.

In an era in which social and emotional intelligence are becoming powerful new tools for students to learn all these values, do we really need to keep sending students home, especially girls, because someone does not like the way their shirts fall on their shoulders? Or strip them from well-earned medals because they had a “wedgie” in a school-issued bathing suit? Is an education in which the body of a girl is more important than her right to an education one we should be trying to uphold?

Have you ever had a bad experience with dress codes as a student or teacher? Do you think dress codes should be maintained, with improvements, or do you believe that schools should discard uniforms and dress codes altogether? Let us know in the comments section.