Dress codes and equity

by Sue Oh | May 4, 2024 | 0 Comments
featured image

You are more than what you wear

Dress codes in schools aim to establish a sense of order. But they often end up reinforcing stereotypes, perpetuating biases, and disproportionately affecting students based on their gender.

Sue Oh

Sue Oh

"Strict" dress codes are enforced in less than half of schools in the USA according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and the rate is declining. But these policies still affect millions of students. Many school districts have outdated dress code policies. They should engage actively with students in the process of updating them.

Problems with dress codes

A 2022 study by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined dress codes in schools throughout the United States. The research found patterns of massive bias and inconsistent enforcement. It called on districts to reconsider the purpose:

“While school districts often cite safety as the reason for having a dress code, many dress codes include elements that may make the school environment less equitable and safe for students.”

Dress codes conventionally treat male and female students differently. Traditional dress codes often focus particular attention on regulating the attire of female students, prescribing specific hem lengths in inches, pant fabrics, necklines, and more.

These codes often contain ambiguous language and subjective criteria, leading to a disproportionate focus on policing girls' clothing choices, which reinforces harmful stereotypes about femininity and contributes to a culture of body shaming.

Arguments for strict dress code policies frequently emphasize the potential that female students may choose to dress in ways that can "distract" learners. This not only places the burden of modesty and appropriateness on the shoulders of female students but also sends a potent message that their bodies are inherently distracting or inappropriate.

Conversely, male students generally face fewer restrictions, with dress codes typically focused on prohibiting offensive slogans or sagging pants. The discrepancy in the depth and specificity of regulations between genders reflects and reinforces deeply ingrained societal norms about how individuals should present themselves based on their gender.

Implicit bias in enforcement

Another critical aspect of gender inequity in school dress codes is the prevalence of implicit bias in their enforcement. The GAO study found that dress code violations are often subjective, interpreted by school administrators in ways that are further tangled up with race, socioeconomic status, and gender identity.

Gender spectrum and race

In the Ed100 blog
Growing acceptance of gender and sexual diversity

Dress codes strongly tend to be outmoded, especially when it comes to embracing diverse gender identities beyond the traditional binary of male and female. Increasingly, young people self-identify as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bigender, and various other identities that exist outside or between the conventional categories of "man" and "woman." The GAO report found, for example, that:

“an estimated 15 percent of districts’ dress codes specify different rules for clothing, accessories, or hairstyles based on students’ sex, such as 'no fingernail polish or makeup is allowed on male students.' None of the dress codes we reviewed with sex-based rules explicitly protect transgender or nonbinary students’ ability to dress according to their gender identity.

Students from marginalized communities often face disproportionate enforcement and harsher consequences for dress code violations.

For example, I have witnessed race playing a huge factor in the enforcement of dress codes where Asian or Hispanic female students have been disciplined while white female students are bypassed. The enforcement of Eurocentric beauty standards and cultural insensitivity further alienates students who do not conform to mainstream expectations embedded in these dress codes.

Transgender and non-binary students face additional challenges, as dress codes often fail to accommodate diverse gender expressions. This lack of inclusivity not only contributes to feelings of isolation but can also lead to mental health issues and a reluctance to attend school.

Punitive dress codes hurt students

Beyond perpetuating gender stereotypes, inequitable dress codes can have measurable effects on academic performance. When female students are subjected to stringent clothing regulations, it can breed feelings of self-consciousness and body dissatisfaction.

Concerns about appearance can distract students from their studies and even contribute to absenteeism. When female students are constantly preoccupied with how they are perceived based on their clothing, their focus on academics is inevitably compromised.

Moreover, disciplinary actions taken against girls for dress code violations can result in missed class time, detentions, or even suspension. These punitive measures not only disrupt a girl's education but also contribute to a cycle of disengagement from school, adversely affecting her long-term academic success.

School dress codes that enforce or reinforce traditional notions of masculinity and femininity perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes. By prescribing specific clothing styles deemed appropriate for each gender, these policies reinforce the idea that there is a "correct" way to express one's gender. This not only stifles individuality but also contributes to a culture that marginalizes those who do not conform to binary gender norms. In essence, dress codes contribute to a school culture that can feel unwelcoming and exclusionary.

California dress code laws

California outlaws dress code discrimination by gender, race and religion. To help school boards comply with the law, the California School Board Association (CSBA) has provided a model dress code policy:

Model Dress Code (California School Board Association)

Gender/religious discrimination

Students shall not be prohibited from dressing in a manner consistent with their gender identity or gender expression or with their religious or cultural observance.


The dress code shall not discriminate against students based on hair texture and protective hairstyles, including, but not limited to, braids, locks, and twists.

Gang-related apparel

A school may establish a reasonable dress code that prohibits students from wearing gang-related apparel when there is evidence of a gang presence that disrupts or threatens to disrupt the school's activities.

When determining specific items of clothing that may be defined as gang apparel, the school shall ensure that the determination is free from bias based on race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, or other protected characteristics.


Uniforms cannot be mandatory and the Superintendent or designee shall ensure that resources are identified to assist economically disadvantaged students in obtaining uniforms.

Free Speech

A school may limit student expression as long as its decision is reasonably related to "legitimate pedagogical concerns." For instance, districts may prohibit clothing that is vulgar or causes a substantial disruption to the educational program.

Districts may also prohibit clothing that promotes drug use. While districts can regulate clothing that causes a "substantial disruption," districts cannot regulate student clothing simply because the district does not approve of the message displayed.


The dress code shall not be enforced in a manner that discriminates against a particular viewpoint or results in a disproportionate application of the dress code based on students' gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, household income, or body type or size.

Fixing dress codes: National policies

It is great to note that the recognition of gender inequity in school dress codes has spurred a growing movement for reform. Students, parents, and advocacy groups are pushing for policies that are inclusive, respectful of individual expression, and free from gender bias.

At the national level, the Government Accountability Office recommends action by the Secretary of Education.

Government Accountability Office recommendations

Equitable Dress Codes

Provide resources to help districts and schools design equitable dress codes to promote a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

Safe and Supportive Schools

Include dress code information in existing resources on safe and supportive schools. This information could include examples of dress codes that safeguard students’ privacy and body autonomy.

Equitable Enforcement

Provide resources for states, school districts, and schools on the equitable enforcement of discipline, including dress code discipline. These resources should include information that helps states, school districts, and schools address potential disparities and disproportionality in dress code enforcement.

Data Collection

Collect information on the prevalence and effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline and disseminate this information to states, school districts, and schools.

Involve students in updating your district's dress code

In practice, dress code reform efforts must be implemented district by district and enforced school by school. Students can play a central role in the dialogue surrounding dress codes, bringing their voices to shape policies that directly affect them.

Inclusive dress codes that accommodate diverse gender identities and expressions are gaining traction. Many districts are adopting more flexible and inclusive language that avoids perpetuating harmful stereotypes. This shift reflects a broader societal acknowledgment of the fluidity and diversity of gender, encouraging schools to embrace policies that celebrate individual expression rather than stifling it.

Dress codes and equity

Students should be able to express themselves without discrimination based on their sex and gender identity.

In the quest for an equitable education system, addressing gender inequity in school dress codes is a crucial step. These codes, meant to regulate attire and maintain order, have inadvertently become a battleground for reinforcing harmful stereotypes, perpetuating bias, and limiting the opportunities for self-expression.

Recognizing the impact of these policies on academic performance, mental health, and the perpetuation of gender norms is essential for fostering a learning environment that values diversity, inclusivity, and individuality.

By fostering an inclusive and respectful learning environment, California districts can set an example for the nation and pave the way for a future where students of all genders are free to express themselves without fear of discrimination.

Sue Oh, a senior at Sunny Hills High School, is passionate about identity equity, student voice, and legislation. Their work in policy includes their roles as Co-Chief of K-12 Policy and Legislation at Generation Up (GENup), Education Policy Director at the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), State Policy Director at California High School Democrats (CAHSD), State Student Board Member for the California PTA, and a part of the Legislative Policy Committee of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA). They enjoy learning about and exploring their own culture as well as other cultures around the world. In their free time, you can find them playing with their lovable cats, drinking and experimenting with coffee, and reading.

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
Design by SimpleSend

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Welcome Back!

Login with Email

We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to

Share via Email

Get on Board!
Learn how California's School System works so you can make a difference.
Our free lessons are short, easy to read, and up to date. Each lesson you complete earns a ticket for your school. You could win $1,000 for your PTA.

Join Ed100

Already a member? Login

Or Create Account