A Sociology teacher at Indian Creek Senior High School in Trafalgar, Indiana was sent home on the last day of school for encouraging students to break dress code rules. Trafalgar is a small rural community about 25 miles south of Indianapolis, Indiana. The goal of the social experiment was to prove the dress code is sexist and disproportionately exercised against girls.
According to students and parents, this has been an on-going issue at Indian Creek Senior High. For years, girls have been overwhelmingly singled-out, reprimanded, and sent home for violating dress code, whereas boys have not been subject to the same treatment. The last day of school was no different. Students who participated in the experiment showed up to school wearing tank tops, hats, and skirts that didn’t meet dress code standards.
Boys who wore hats, cutoffs, and tank tops in violation of the dress code faced no consequences. Girls who violated the dress code were told their outfits were inappropriate and distracting. They were asked to cover up, go home to change, or have parents bring clothes to school.
On a typical school day at Indian Creek High School, administrative staff and teachers monitor the halls between classes to flag girls who show too much skin. The Principal and Assistant Principal sit in the hallways between classes to enforce strict adherence to the dress code.
Emma Hansen*, a junior at Indian Creek, says the school prioritizes dress code enforcement over quality education: “One of our male teachers encouraged us to break dress code since the boys never get in trouble for it, why should we? Several girls went to school in tank top style dress and thick strapped tank tops. Boys wore hats and cutoffs. In the morning, girls were immediately pulled into the office. They were told their outfits were inappropriate and distracting, but the boys had no consequences. They were not told to cover up or that their outfits were distracting. Our teacher helped us prove how sexist our dress code really is. The teacher was sent home for being unprofessional and encouraging us to protest. We lost a very valuable teacher that day because our school cares more about the dress code than the quality of teaching we are receiving.”
Constant policing of girls’ bodies creates a hostile learning environment. It forces girls to internalize the sexist societal message that women should be judged based on appearance above all else. Dress codes that sexualize young girls force them to view their own bodies through a heteronormative patriarchal lens that objectifies girls and women and blames them for the actions of others.
What does it mean when we tell girls their bodies are “distracting” and they must be disciplined for wearing tank tops or spaghetti straps to class? Punishing girls because boys are distracted doesn’t address the root of the problem. If boys are unable to focus in class, corrective action must include educating boys on how to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand.
Victim-blaming is a symptom of a culture that devalues girls and women. When men sexually assault women, women are put on trial. When boys are distracted, girls are blamed. It’s time to address the root of the problem by holding boys and men accountable for their own behavior and actions.
Instead of fostering a healthy environment that teaches girls to support one another, the enforcement of sexist dress codes teaches girls to police each other for social rewards. On the last day of school at Indian Creek High School, girls who didn’t participate in the dress code protest shamed girls who did by uploading pictures of them to social media with snide comments.
The school has a strict anti-bullying policy, but when administrators were notified of the online shaming, they chose to ignore it rather than treating it as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about bullying. School administrators who take minor dress code violations more seriously than bullying need to re-evaluate their priorities.
Mikayla Yohe, a graduating Senior at Indian Creek, explained that minor dress code violations do not disrupt the school day, but enforcement of the sexist dress code does. Girls who violate the dress code are not allowed to return to class until they cover up. Class absences due to dress code violations count toward the annual 7-day absence limit. Mikayla described the disruption caused by enforcement of the dress code on the last day of school:
“Our teacher encouraged his students, as well as their peers, to break the dress code to prove there is a double standard in the way our school district handles girls who break dress code as opposed to guys. Several girls were publicly shamed on social media and were ‘dress-coded’ very early in the day, however the guys who also broke dress code faced no backlash. The teacher wore a tank top in support of the protest. After lunch, administrators sent the teacher home on grounds of disrupting the school day, encouraging behavior that was against the rules, and for violating the dress code. He still had a final exam to administer after lunch. He had to quickly find a substitute teacher to fill in before he left. This of course not only proved the point he was attempting to make, but also shows that sending someone home for a dress code violation can in fact disrupt the school day, while bare arms and legs do not.”
Mikayla estimates that up to 20 girls were sent to the office on the last day of school for minor dress code infractions. The only male reprimanded was the teacher responsible for organizing the protest. The unfair targeting of girls is an on-going issue that becomes more pronounced as the weather gets warmer and girls choose to wear weather-appropriate clothing.
The dress code at Indian Creek High School is less about health, safety, and limiting classroom disruptions and more about controlling girls. Although, the dress code states that clothing to the “point of immodesty may not be worn” and shorts and skirts must “extend past the students fingertips when the arms are extended,” school-mandated uniforms for Girls’ Volleyball, Cheer, and other sports do not even come close to meeting dress code regulations.
The school is sending girls mixed messages: it’s immodest, inappropriate, and distracting when you wear clothing that shows too much skin, but it’s appropriate when we tell you to wear clothing that violates dress code standards.
Institutions in patriarchal societies expect control over girls’ and women’s bodies. The tug-of-war over who controls a woman’s body starts in elementary school with dress codes and continues in Congress when year after year legislation is introduced to limit women’s bodily autonomy.
Although definitions of modesty have evolved, the core message has remained the same for centuries: girls who are modest deserve respect. Girls who are not deserve to be punished and shamed. It’s time to hold boys and men accountable and to cultivate learning environments where girls can grow and flourish without being forced to conform to outdated Puritan values of modesty.
Ironically, Trafalgar was established as Liberty, Indiana in 1851.
*Pseudonym used to protect student privacy