09/05/2017 16:29 EDT | Updated 09/06/2017 16:19 EDT

Sexist School Dress Codes Are A Problem, And Oregon May Have The Answer

A school in Illinois is showing the potential of Oregon's gender-neutral dress code model.

Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
This statement has become the motto of a movement against sexism in school dress codes. 

“I am not a distraction.”

It’s the statement that’s become a rallying cry across the burgeoning movement against inequitable school dress codes, a movement propelled largely by the young girls who are so often targeted by policies that label the parts of their bodies ― whether covered by yoga pants, spaghetti straps, gym shorts, leggings or tank tops ― as “distractions.” 

But recently, Evanston Township High School in Illinois gained accolades for releasing an updated dress code that explicitly forbids body shaming and aims to diminish marginalization of students based on their “race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type/size.”

Evanston Township High
Evanston Township High's new dress code "supports students so they can express their individuality," according to Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. 

“All students should be able to dress comfortably for school and engage in the educational environment without fear of or actual unnecessary discipline or body shaming,” the code states in its “values” section. 

All the listed rules, which prohibit things like violent imagery and hate speech, not tank tops and ripped jeans, apply to “students,” not boys or girls. 

And those “distractions?” Students and staff are responsible for managing their own personal “distractions,” regardless of what anybody else is wearing.

“We heard from our students that their ability to be inspired to learn was directly impacted by their daily experiences with dress code enforcement because of their gender identity or expression, racial identity, cultural or religious identity, body size, or body maturity,” Evanston Township High School District Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told HuffPost.

So last year, the administration decided to listen, hearing student feedback in various venues, including a Women’s Empowerment Conference in which more than 100 students participated, and to review the school data, which supported the students’ claims of being disciplined disproportionately across racial and gender lines. They also found that in an effort to enforce the dress code, some adults were body shaming students. 

“Like most dress codes in schools across the U.S., our code contained language that reinforced the gender binary and racial profiling, among other inequitable practices,” says Witherspooon. “The previous dress code and enforcement philosophy did not align with our equity goals and purpose, and it had to be changed.”

Over the summer, school leaders transformed their dress code to accolades from their local community and the national press. But while the rave reviews are well deserved, they didn’t do it alone. Evanston Township gives full credit for the basis of the code to the Oregon NOW Model, which an Evanston student who was serving as an advisor to the school board found online.

What happened in Oregon was a convergence of circumstances between the Oregon chapter of The National Organization of Women and a group of students who were protesting the Portland Public Schools dress code policies.

The board of Oregon NOW had limited resources and was looking for a way to be helpful in moving things forward for women and girls when they came up with the idea to write a model dress code to help schools update and improve their increasingly controversial policies. 

“At Oregon NOW, a bunch of us were parents and we all had kids in public schools, and a bunch of us were talking about it [dress codes], because the whole nation was! It was everywhere we turned. Everyone was having a problem with it,” Lisa Frack, president of the board of Oregon NOW told HuffPost. “We felt like this is one of those cases where everybody says there’s a problem and then they end their article with, ‘Well what’s the perfect code?’ And no one had a perfect code. No one had an answer that we could find. We felt like a way for us to be really useful was to write a model code.”

Around the same time, in May of 2015, a quartet of middle-school students including Sophia Carlson spoke at a school board hearing, attended by Frack, in protest of their school’s discriminatory dress code policies.  

Sophia Carlson and three other middle school students spoke at a Portland Public School board hearing in protest of dress codes.

“My personal experience with the old PPS dress code was that all dress code violators were female, and any staff member could write you up for a violation at any time,” Carlson, now a sophomore at Grant High School, told HuffPost. “Since only female students received dress code violations on the basis that what they were wearing was distracting to boys, it taught male students that it is acceptable to misbehave and disrespect women if their skin is showing, and it taught female students that making sure male students had a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her own education.”

At the end of her testimony, Carlson suggested forming a committee of teachers, administrators, students and parents to create a non-discriminatory gender-neutral dress code. 

The school board agreed. 

Frack saw an opportunity for partnership, and both she, Carlson and NOW board vice-president Elleanor Chin served on the resulting advisory board, which Carlson says aimed to eliminate the discriminatory language and double standards that were leading girls to lose educational time to dress code violations.

Sophia Carlson
Sophia Carlson says she felt uncomfortable and embarrassed when she was told by teachers to pull her shirt up or her shorts down.

After a year of 2-hour monthly meetings, and an extensive community input process, the committee recommended the updated dress code, which Chin and Frack wrote based on their Oregon NOW model, and which was adopted by the board in June 2016.

According to Carlson, things are much better since the adoption of the new code. “I’ve had a full year with the new dress code in place and it feels like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she told HuffPost. “Now I don’t wake up and fret over the appropriateness of my outfit or if I’ll miss class because I’m in violation of the dress code.”

Despite the seeming success story, the dress code model Frack and Oregon NOW created to help women and girls has stayed mostly under the radar. They’ve tried giving presentations on the model in rural parts of Oregon, but found people less than receptive to liberal Portlanders, Frack says. Still, she’s always happy to answer questions on the code.

Lisa Frack
Lisa Frack, president of the board of Oregon NOW, with her 11-year-old daughter Georgia.

“I got a call from some high school principal in Connecticut ― and I was at the airport ― asking, ‘Is it OK if we use your code?’ and I was like ‘Oh, PLEASE! Nothing would make us happier,’” she says.  

Meanwhile, battles over sexism and school dress codes continue to play themselves on prom nights and in principal’s offices across the country.

As Carlson points out, for many young people, dress codes are some of “their first exposure to ideas such as victim blaming, objectification, and body shaming.”

But more and more young people are also pushing back against those ideas. Like the teen who called out her high school’s policy against shoulders in her yearbook quote. Or this one who protested with a statement-making T-shirt. Or these high-school boys who protested in solidarity with female students.

And with all those students and parents feeling increasingly dissatisfied with codes they see as body shaming, sexist and sexualizing, and advocating for change, districts like Portland Public Schools and schools like Evanston Township High are blazing an exemplary trail by modernizing with a non-discriminatory, gender-neutral dress code. 

Carlson says how empowered she felt as a young woman being able to change a sexist policy and encourages other students to advocate for change. To schools who want to make changes in their dress codes, she suggests a committee like the one that affected change in Portland. 

Frack knows that in today’s political climate, dress codes may seem like a minor issue, but she says it’s one with impact. “This isn’t going to solve the world for women and girls by fixing the dress code,” Frack says. “But it’s not small. It’s one answer to some giant problems. And sometimes thats how you have to solve them ― chipping away at one thing and a time.”

“And I love that this came from these kids,” she added. “They were seeking a solution and we just coalesced and piled on, but they really get the credit.”

The Oregon NOW model is free and available here