Though administrations at schools may argue their dress code policies are simply to keep other students from getting distracted, some find the policies to be sexist.

On a hot day in April 2014, about 30 boys — mostly seniors — walked into Athens High School wearing a little less than they had the day before. 

The boys wore above-the-knee–length shorts in response to an idea that was posted on the AHS Class of 2014 Facebook page by then-senior Devon Halliday. 

“In light of (the) announcement today that ‘ladies’ will be sent home if their shorts are too short, I vote that all the guys come in tomorrow wearing short-shorts,” Halliday, now a sophomore at Brown University, posted on the page the night before. 

“That’s an absolutely fantastic idea,” someone commented on her post. 

“So I know what I’m doing to an old pair of jeans tonight,” another responded. 

And so began the short-shorts revolution at Athens High School. 

Although the movement may have started as a “senior prank with a gender equality twist,” as one person described on the post, Halliday said she wrote it because she was frustrated that the administration’s announcement targeted girls. 

“Getting sent home and scolded for your wardrobe was something (girls) had to think about. It was an annoying thing to try to consider in the morning when I’m trying to get dressed,” Halliday, who studies comparative literature, said. “Administration took it very lightly. A couple guys might have been told to change, but none of them were sent home.” 

One of the seniors who participated in the prank by wearing short corduroy cutoffs, Sam McGee, said the prank was intended to be funny, but people thought of it as a political statement after it was over. 

“In hindsight, it kind of makes a statement because they didn’t really punish (the boys) or discipline us in any way,” McGee, now a sophomore at Ohio University studying wildlife and conservation biology, said. “I think, in a sense, the dress code (was gendered) because guys are less likely to wear really short clothing. I think a lot of dress codes are more geared towards women.” 

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Dress codes aren’t only prevalent in high school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2009 to 2010 school year, 57 percent of public schools enforced a “strict dress code.” More often in Athens’ middle school than in high school, McGee recalled girls being “shirted,” or forced to wear an oversized T-shirt if they wore a top exposing their shoulders. 

“Generally it’d be girls, because most guys weren’t wearing tank tops,” McGee said. “You could tell if someone got shirted because they’d be wearing some sort of funky white gym shirt that no one would wear. It was always too big.” 

In 2011 to 2012, 19 percent of public schools required student uniforms, and many more private schools required uniforms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

Sophomore Emily Swanson graduated from Stephen T. Badin, a Catholic high school in Hamilton, Ohio, and said she often received demerits for violations of the dress code, whether that was for facial piercings, hair color or hemming her uniformed skirt too short. 

“We’d have to kneel down on the ground and put a soda can underneath our skirt and if our skirt didn’t touch the rim of the soda can, we either got sent home or we got demerits,” Swanson, who studies communication, said. “They’d be like, ‘Oh you’re going to distract the boys,’ and I was like, ‘That’s not my problem. It’s not interfering with their education. It’s interfering with mine when you call me out in class, send me to the office and make me go home.’ ” 

Many administrators use the reasoning that if a girl wears too short of shorts or exposes too much of her shoulders, her body could potentially be a distraction to male students. That reasoning is problematic when it comes to solving gender inequality, Sarah Jenkins, program coordinator of the Women’s Center, said. 

“(It is rooted in the idea) that the other people in school, generally boys, are somehow unable to control themselves around women’s bodies,” Jenkins said. “Dress codes take time out of girls’ education to fix clothing to ‘supposedly’ make boys more comfortable. Although it is boys that are supposedly distracted, it is girls that must leave school to change their clothing ... and girls start learning it in fourth grade when they are told not to wear spaghetti straps.” 

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Jenkins said when administrators argue that a dress code policy is “gender neutral” or uses language such as “no one” instead of specifying to women, it’s important to see that the issue isn’t that cut and dry. 

“If you think the dress code is gender neutral, ask yourself: Why is it that this is applying more to girls than boys? If it’s the way that women's clothing is made, that’s something to think about on a larger scale,” Jenkins said. “There is this villainization of women who conform to the standards of beauty that society sets for them.We do everything in our power to look a certain way, but then women are criticized for looking too feminine and are not taken seriously because of it.”

The problems go beyond spaghetti straps in fourth grade.

Dean of Students and Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Jenny Hall-Jones said she never experienced sexism directed at her until she became a dean of students.

Hall-Jones recalled a presentation she made as as interim dean in the summer of 2012. The presentation was one used by Ryan Lombardi, former vice president for Student Affairs who had previously been dean of students. Using a live Twitter feed behind her just as Lombardi had, Hall-Jones said students tweeted that her outfit looked like she should be in The Wizard of Oz

Hall-Jones said another student tweeted, “Does anyone else want to bang her?”

“I was angry, but what I started doing is I started not wearing skirts. I started not wearing anything that had any bright colors in it, and I started wearing suits,” she said. “It wasn’t until the whole next year that I was like, ‘Why did I let that happen?’ I let that experience change who I was. So what I try to do now is dress a little bit more ‘me.’ I dress professionally in my way and feel comfortable in my own skin.”

The line between dressing in a feminine or sexual manner and dressing to look more masculine is a hard line to decipher, according to Cynthia Anderson, associate professor of sociology. She added that any time a woman is entering a male-dominated field, whether she conforms to gender norms, it is often a no-win situation.

“Women spend more time saying, ‘Am I going to be perceived as overly sexual with this outfit? Is this outfit going to send the wrong message?’ ” Anderson, who has studied the connections between women and occupations and has written published work about the pay gap, said. “Men don’t think that way, and that’s because of our culture and the relationship between men and women in our culture.”

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Anderson said she finds jobs that keep uniform standards the same or similar, such as nurses and doctors or serving positions, actually can be helpful to women because that way, they don’t have to worry whether they’re dressing in a way that is or isn’t sexual. 

Swanson, however, disagreed. Although she hesitated to call school uniforms sexist, she acknowledged the strict gender roles that come into play with uniformity. 

“The guys at my school had really strict hair requirements — they couldn’t have long hair. I get that they want to make everybody equal, but we’re not all equal,” Swanson said. “We’re different. It’s stamping out individuality, and I don’t see what the benefit of it is for us to all look the same.”

—Megan Henry contributed to this report


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