Although school uniforms and dress codes have traditionally been favored by private and parochial schools, public schools are slowly starting to adopt them as well. Thirty percent of public schools started requiring uniforms in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
I attended schools from kindergarten through 12th grade that required uniforms, and don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind wearing them. What I did mind was the reasoning behind the requirement.
Uniforms level playing field
If you ask school administrators, public or private, they’ll probably all tell you what my school told me: uniforms are a way to “level the playing field,” so to speak. Students from all socio-economic backgrounds look the same, allowing them to focus on school instead of on each other.
Let me tell you why that’s not the truth, and why even if it was, it doesn’t work.
First, uniforms did the exact opposite of leveling the playing field. I went to school every single day for four years in the exact same shirt and skirt as every other girl in the school. Did that make us all friends? No. Did we stop judging each other because we literally had the same clothes on? No.
If anything, we got meaner. We judged each other on even more trivial things, like what kind of socks we had on, what color shirt we chose to wear that day (there were three options), or how expensive our shoes were.
Uniforms limit distractions
Second, it wasn’t really about leveling the playing field. Why? Because every single day there was a girl asked to change something about her outfit because she was being “distracting.”
You couldn’t wear leggings or yoga pants under your school skirt once you made it inside, even if it was 12 degrees out. You couldn’t wear earrings that were too large, too colorful or too long. You couldn’t wear shorts or tank tops on “dress down” days. We even had random “uniform checks” where our skirts were measured by teachers with rulers to make sure they were long enough.
Oh, and the boys were checked to make sure their shirts were tucked in.
Have you ever been sent to detention because your earlobes were distracting? What about your knees? Or your shoulders? Girls all across the country have been for those exact reasons.
According to the Time Magazine article “Schools are still slut-shaming girls while enforcing dress code” by Eliana Dockterman, dress codes and uniforms often encourage teachers to slut-shame female students based on school rules that are sexual in their nature.
“Instead of teaching boys to keep their eyes on their books and not on their co-eds’ bodies, schools think it better to tell girls that they are dressing ‘inappropriately’ or that their clothing is too ‘distracting,’” Dockterman said in the article. “In doing so, they make girls feel guilty for boys’ actions.”
Uniforms are Band-Aids
Are there pros to uniforms? In theory, yes. According to the GreatSchools.org article “Do uniforms make schools better?” by Marian Wilde, there are several benefits; uniforms help prevent gangs forming on school grounds, encourage discipline and encourage school spirit and community.
But the same article also said uniforms are “simply a Band-Aid” fix to school violence, can be a financial burden on families and is a violation of student’s freedom of expression.
Trust me, I understand the argument for uniforms. I get that hormones are raging and teens are immature, but teenagers don’t stay 16 forever.
The problem is that we are teaching men at a very young age that they can objectify women and that it is the women’s fault. According to the Time article, sending girls to detention for “distracting” attire is not a far cry from telling a sexual assault victim that it was their fault because they were “asking for it” by dressing a certain way.
Do I think every girl should be going to school in a bandeau and short shorts? No, absolutely not. But I also think we should be teaching young women to respect themselves and their bodies and to demand respect from their peers. There are more positive ways to go about this than shaming them.
Uniforms can help
I’ll be the first to admit that uniforms made my morning routine so much easier and cheaper, and I think they really can bring students together.
When the Royals or the Cats are winning, we all show up to campus in their colors, and there is a sense of community about it. Uniforms can accomplish this same feeling. You are representing your school through your uniform and should be proud of that, not worried about getting in trouble for wearing it wrong.
Uniforms also saved me and my parents money. We didn’t see them as a burden because we would have spent so much more if we didn’t have them. I didn’t come from money like some of the other students did, so keeping up with trends and buying nice clothes would have been hard. I would have stuck out without them.
These are the reason uniforms should be used. They should be about more than skirt length and covered shoulders. That’s a Band-Aid, not a solution.
School uniforms are not the devil, but they need to be used for the right reasons. Stop pulling out rulers to enforce sexist rules and start fostering the sense of equality and community.
Courtney Burke is a senior in journalism.