The Distortion of Distraction

By Arielle Morris

Art by Ashley Xie

I first questioned my school’s dress code in my freshman year of high school. I transitioned from my middle school, which had a very strict dress code, to my high school, which had little to no enforced dress code. I was shocked to arrive on campus and see students dressed in short shorts, crop tops, and spaghetti straps, all of which were banned from my middle school. What surprised me even more was that no one seemed to be overly distracted by the female students’ clothing. For years, I was told that the mere sight of my shoulder would distract male students to the point where they could no longer focus on their classes. In reality, this was not the case. Why is it that school administrators police the width of a tank top strap, claiming a child’s shoulder is distracting to male students? Why is a shoulder sexualized when it is not a sexual part of the body? This prompted me to investigate why female students were subjected to unfair restrictions that seemed to serve no purpose.

School dress codes are extremely detrimental to young girls who are taught that they are simply a distraction, perpetuate rape culture through the sexualization of young girls, and are used to discriminate against the “other” races and genders.

Girls grow up in a society where they are treated as sexual objects who are viewed as inferior to men. Teaching girls at a young and impressionable age that their bodies are shameful is appalling. Society has already placed women at a disadvantage when it comes to success in the professional world, and jeopardizing their education places another obstacle in their way. School dress codes place more of an emphasis on controlling girls’ appearances than prioritizing their presence in the classroom, intelligence or contribution to the academic environment. When a female student is removed from the classroom because she is deemed a distraction to male students, she is being told her education is less important than every boy in her class. In an attempt to avoid any theoretical distractions, dress codes act to preserve boys’ ability to learn at the expense of the girls’. When girls are pulled out of class so an administrator can measure their clothes, they lose the opportunity to learn. Instead of prioritizing the education of male students at the expense of the female students, schools should place less of an emphasis on girls’ clothing and spend more time and money educating today’s youth.

School dress codes perpetuate rape culture, which blames victims, excuses sexual violence, and objectifies women. Many schools explain their need for dress codes by asserting they are necessary to protect girls from unwanted, inappropriate attention. This suggests that the unwanted attention is inevitable, and, instead of disciplining boys who treat a girl with disrespect because of how she is dressed, schools force girls to change their clothes. Girls should not be forced to cover up to ensure boys will not go through the inconvenience of being distracted in class. The concept of school dress codes suggests that any amount of attention or violence is entirely the fault of the victim. This thought process leads to the objectification of girls in schools. Administrators see them as sexual objects that need to be covered up to make sure the important students, the boys, are given all the tools for success. This sexualization is especially appalling when one considers that adult faculty members are claiming a child’s body is distracting.

School dress codes discriminate against girls. As many dress codes are only applied to clothes commonly worn by female students, it is extremely easy to identify the discrimination. In a Utah high school, multiple yearbook pictures of girls who did not conform to the dress code were photoshopped to be more “school appropriate.” This issue represents a misogynistic point of view, “especially since no male pictures were altered.”[1] Because the same yearbook included pictures of shirtless male students, parents and students pointed out the hypocrisy in the school’s decision, it exposed a double standard where a girl’s shoulder was deemed too “sexy” but a shirtless boy in the gym was deemed demonstrative of school spirit. Another school that discriminated through its dress code was Vista Murrieta High School in Southern California, which removed approximately fifty girls from class for wearing shorts or skirts that were deemed too short while allowing male students to wear much shorter shorts with no disciplinary consequences.[2] Dress code violations such as these are extremely confusing and degrading to girls. The disparity between the treatment of male and female students is glaring. By depriving fifty girls of their education for the day while allowing boys to remain in class, the school perpetuated a system where girls are at an academic disadvantage. Furthermore, schools shaming students and depriving them of their education lowers those students’ self-esteem, which can have detrimental effects on their future success.

The most common explanation for why dress codes are necessary is that they protect girls from sexual harassment and violence at school. This way of thinking only further perpetuates rape culture. Deciding that “boys will be boys” and forcing girls to cover up promotes the toxic belief that male aggression is an inevitable result of a girl’s clothing. Promoting victim-blaming removes any expectation for boys to assume responsibility for their actions, thus creating a never-ending cycle of rape culture. Society would be well-served if schools taught boys to control themselves regardless of girls’ clothing instead of allowing them to believe they are helpless to behave appropriately when a nearby girl shows her collarbone. Maybe if men were taught that controlling their urges were their responsibility, rape statistics and victim blaming would decline.

School dress codes are dangerous and harmful to impressionable girls as they learn how to interpret and navigate the adult world. Dress codes have become extremely prevalent in schools today but in reality they promote the hypersexualization of young girls, the concept of rape culture, and the discrimination against female students around the globe. My high school is a prime example of how dress codes are unnecessary. In sunny southern California where girls would often wear shorts and tank tops to school, there was never an instance I was aware of in which a female student’s clothing distracted a male student. What is truly more distracting: a student’s clothing or the dress code that deprives them of their education?

[1] Jonsson, P. (2014, May 30). 'Shoulder-shaming' girls at Utah high school: Why the big cover up? Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

[2] Devoe, Noelle. “This School Dress Coded 25 Girls at Once on the Last Week of School in 90-Degree Heat.” Seventeen, Seventeen, 25 Apr. 2018,