One reason Riley O’Keefe prefers 10th grade to ninth is that she can dress more comfortably. That includes wearing tank tops, a style of clothing that was, until recently, off limits to girls at her high school in St. Johns County, Florida.

“School’s a lot better this year because I love wearing tank tops,” said O’Keefe, 16. “I love wearing shorts. It’s hot in Florida. Freshman year, it would be burning hot outside, and I would be in jeans and a big T-shirt, and I was burning up because half of us eat lunch outside because there’s not enough space inside, and especially with COVID, I don’t want to be inside eating lunch; no one’s wearing a mask, and everyone’s squished together at tables.”

Last year, Bartram Trail High School’s dress code banned girls from wearing “revealing” or “distracting” clothing. While its rules have changed, many schools continue to enforce dress codes that students and their advocates criticize as “outdated” and experts say uphold harmful gender and racial norms. But advocacy groups, lawmakers and students, in mostly Southern states including Georgia, Louisiana and Florida, are challenging rigid dress codes with lawsuits, policy changes and protests.  

Some efforts have been successful, and others are still making their way through courts. On January 1, a new law took effect in Illinois that prevents schools from implementing hairstyle-based dress code policies, which have been found to disproportionately affect youth of color. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in December settled a case against Texas’ Magnolia Independent School District, which had a dress code requiring boys to have short hair. Also last month, Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, argued before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a North Carolina public charter school’s dress code that did not allow girls to wear pants or shorts to school is discriminatory. That case is ongoing, as are the ACLU’s efforts to get several Florida school districts, including St. Johns County School District, to make their dress codes more equitable. 

Bartram Trail High School’s dress code now uses gender-neutral language, a change made after O’Keefe’s yearbook photo went viral in May. O’Keefe’s picture, along with those of at least 80 other girls, was altered by a faculty member who believed it violated the dress code. While part of her chest was covered, a photo of a group of boys in swimsuits was untouched, signaling to O’Keefe that the issue at hand wasn’t student clothing but the sexualization of girls’ and women’s bodies. 

“All of those girls are being framed as dangerous and as disruptive to the ‘peaceful’ learning environment,” said Shauna Pomerantz, author of “Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part” and associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. “It’s a ridiculous idea to think that [editing] these pictures is going to somehow change the culture of the school. If anything, that kind of action is going to enhance rape culture in any school, and it’s going to give people the message that girls are asking for trouble if they show their cleavage.”

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After a parent filed a federal complaint against the St. Johns County School District because of its dress code and the ACLU informed the district that the code violated federal law — which prohibits sex, race and other forms of discrimination in education, including school policies that target certain groups of students — the school board voted for the gender-neutral policy that’s now in effect. But the federal investigation into the district remains open and girls continue to make up most of the students cited for dress code violations

“These dress codes tend to reflect majority or majoritarian expectations about how students should present,” Sherwin said. “They reflect traditional patriarchal notions of femininity and ‘modesty’ regarding girls and how they should dress. They certainly reflect outdated attitudes about boys’ presumed inability to control their own impulses and tend to blame harassment on the way girl students dress rather than addressing the root of the problem.”

Sexist dress codes, Sherwin said, single out attire that girls commonly wear, such as tank tops, leggings or exposed bra straps. O’Keefe said that last year school faculty members conducted a dress code sweep in which they asked girls to raise their arms to see if their tops were long enough to cover their stomachs when they did so. According to a public records review by a local news outlet, girls accounted for 83 percent of students cited for dress code violations in the St. Johns County School District from fall 2020 to February 2021. 

Christina Langston, the district’s chief of community relations, said school officials used reports of the dress code sweep “as an opportunity to reinforce with staff how, when and why students should receive a dress code warning/infraction.”

Too often, dress codes amount to what Pomerantz calls “a hidden curriculum.” This curriculum may not be openly taught in class, but it sends students messages nonetheless. Usually, the messages are rooted in sexism, sizeism, racism and heterosexism, she said. That’s because girls, especially those with bigger bodies, students of color and LGBTQ+ youth are frequent targets of dress codes.  

“But what’s so interesting to me about dress codes is that young women in high schools are now fighting back,” Pomerantz said. “They’re so aware of how the language is being used in a sexist way, in a way that I was not when I was in high school. It’s an incredible push in the right direction for administrators to start listening to students a little bit more about how these hidden curriculum pieces are affecting them.”

To advocate for girls at her school, O’Keefe successfully ran for sophomore class president and launched a Change.org petition calling attention to gender disparities in her school district’s dress code. The alteration of her yearbook photo didn’t make her ashamed, she said, even though that may have been the intention.  

“When I opened the yearbook, the only thought that crossed my mind is of the other 80 girls that were edited in the yearbook,” she recalled. “How many of those girls were looking at that photo and feeling ashamed for what they had on or their bodies in general? It felt like they were trying to make us feel that there was something wrong with our bodies, especially when they had male students in the back of the book in Speedos.”

While clothing policies in dress codes are often unevenly applied to girls, hair grooming guidelines can affect both boys and girls. In particular, Black and Native American boys have faced threats of discipline for wearing long hair, even when it reflects their religious beliefs and cultural traditions. In March, the ACLU of Texas and the national ACLU filed complaints against the Monahans-Wickett-Pyote Independent School District with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice’s Educational Opportunities Section on behalf of two Native American boys seeking exemptions from the district’s dress code prohibiting long hair on male students. In September 2020, the Texas ACLU sent a letter to 477 school districts for having dress code policies that treat students differently based on their gender, including different hair and dress standards for boys and girls. 

“When it comes to something like long hair, you’re tapping into a whole host of cultural and social issues,” Pomerantz said. “So, when I say that sometimes dress codes are racist, I mean that sometimes Indigenous kids are dress coded because their hair is somehow considered to be unruly or not neat and tidy or not conforming. All of that relates to the idea that being professional actually is a code word for being white and middle class. There’s an ideal that the dress codes put forward and that ideal is very much about a proper femininity, a proper masculinity, a proper class performance, which always equates to being middle class or upper class, and a proper sexuality, which always equates to being heterosexual.” 

As some districts enforce dress codes that have been on the books for years, others are taking their cues from the model student dress code developed by Oregon NOW (National Organization for Women) and adopted in 2016 by the Portland Public Schools’ board of education. The dress code is gender neutral and allows students to wear what they want as long as their clothing covers their private areas; is not affiliated with a gang; and does not include imagery of drugs, alcohol or obscenities. School districts all over the country, including San Jose Unified School District in California and District 202 in Evanston, Illinois, have instituted the policy or borrowed heavily from it.

“The wave of the future is nondiscriminatory dress codes,” Sherwin said. “Dress codes that are expressly including terms that differ for boys and girls are and should be a thing of the past.”

The burgeoning spread of dress codes that allow students to decide what they will wear thrills O’Keefe. She said that since teens are so often told to prepare for adulthood that they should be trusted to choose appropriate school attire.  

“They preach so much about how we should be mature because we’re about to be adults,” O’Keefe said of her school faculty. “Then we should be mature enough to pick our own outfits, right? Like that’s such a small thing. And I think that if we can’t be mature enough to pick our outfits, then how do they expect us to do that when we’re adults, and we’re on our own?”