Over the past several years, school dress codes haven’t been without controversy. Particularly because gender-based dress codes often end up furthering unhealthy attitudes about female sexuality — suggesting that it’s girls’ responsibility to cover up because boys can’t help but get “distracted” — students and parents sometimes protest against what they see as a harmful approach to kids’ understanding of gender roles.
There are other subtle ways that schools’ clothing requirements impose messages about gender and sexuality on America’s youth, too. In the name of creating a uniform learning environment without any distractions, school administrators often require students to fit into a narrowly defined view of what it means to be a boy or a girl. Here are five recent examples of schools attempting to police kids’ gender expression, ultimately reinforcing unnecessary stereotypes about how girls and boys ought to behave:
1. A high school senior was kicked out of her prom for wearing pants.
A senior in North Carolina says she was kicked out of prom this past weekend because she showed up in red skinny jeans. “It was kind of a slap in the face,” Shafer Rupard told a local WBTV outlet. She says she was approached by a teacher and asked to leave the event, which was being held at their town’s country club. Her mother, who doesn’t understand what’s wrong with her daughter wanting to wear pants, says she doesn’t think the school publicized any dress code requirements for prom. “It’s just the way she’s always been and she wanted to feel comfortable in her own skin,” Shafer’s mother said. “We want to put out the message to all teenagers that you should be allowed to be yourself.”
2. A fourteen-year-old boy was penalized for wearing makeup.
Last year, eighth grader Chris Martin decided to wear eyeliner, eye shadow, and lipstick to his last day of school. But administrators told him that he needed to wash the makeup off because it would be “distracting” to the other students. According to his mother, the principal told her that it’s “completely ridiculous and unnecessary for boys to wear makeup.” In response, Chris’s parents started a petition demanding that the school board ensure that school is a safe and inclusive place for all students, noting that Martin has been bullied for his gender expression. “I can’t believe in this day and age that someone would think this was that big of an issue,” Chris’s mother told the Tampa Bay Times.
3. An eight-year-old girl was asked to leave her Christian school because she’s not “girly” enough.
Sunnie Kahle’s grandparents were shocked when they received a letter from Timberlake Christian School informing them that Sunnie would no longer be welcome if she didn’t start looking more like a girl. The school administrators cited the institution’s “biblical standards” to justify their discomfort with Sunnie’s short hair, sneakers, and t-shirts, saying other students weren’t sure whether she was a boy or a girl. “We believe that unless Sunnie and her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education,” administrators wrote. Sunnie’s grandparents, who are her legal guardians, withdrew her from TCS and started sending her to public school. “I should just be able to be me and not let them worry about it,” eight-year-old Sunnie told a local outlet last month.
4. A thirteen-year-old boy was suspended for carrying a Vera Bradley purse.
Last fall, an eighth grader in Kansas was suspended from school after he refused to take off his flowered purse. School administrators said that no students are allowed to have bags or purses during certain classes, but Skyler Davis’s mother believes he was unfairly targeted, especially because there’s no official rule about purses in the student dress code. “Skyler is only 13 years old. He’s just a child. And if this isn’t bullying, I don’t know what is,” his mom, Leslie Willis, told KCTV5. Skyler’s story attracted the attention of the handbag designer, who ended up contacting reporters to offer to send products to the middle schooler. “Vera Bradley creates products that allow all of us to express our individual style. We encourage self-expression through color and design,” the company said.
5. A nine-year-old boy was banned from bringing his “My Little Pony” bag to school.
Last month, school administrators in North Carolina told Grayson Bruce that he should leave his pony-themed lunch bag at home. Grayson is often teased for liking “My Little Pony,” which he says is his favorite cartoon, and the school told him that his bag is a “trigger for bullying.” His mother retorted that “saying a lunchbox is a trigger for bullying, is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape. It’s flawed logic, it doesn’t make any sense.” After thousands of people joined a Facebook group in support of Grayson, the school backed down and apologized. Grayson is hardly alone. “My Little Pony” has a growing male fan base, nicknamed “bronies” — although young boys who buck gender norms in this way often get teased, and some have even been driven to suicide.
Sociologists agree that children “learn gender” from constantly being the subject of society’s expectations. But pressuring kids to conform to traditional gender roles can have serious consequences. The children whose parents attempt to over-correct behavior that traditionally occurs within the opposite sex are at greater risk of developing negative psychiatric symptoms as an adult.
And reinforcing traditional gendered behavior can also teach kids to equate their gender with stereotypes that aren’t always healthy. Teaching a little boy that cultural markers of femininity, like purses and ponies, are worthy of his derision can end up influencing how he thinks about his female peers. Telling a little girl that she’s supposed to be “pretty” can send her the message that her value only comes from her appearance. And those attitudes are wrapped up in the power dynamics between men and women that persist into adulthood.