Sophia Trevino carefully picked her outfit the night before her first day of eighth grade last month. Two hours before bedtime, and with her mother’s help, she went through her closet and selected a white Los Angeles T-shirt, a new pair of black distressed jeans and Air Force 1 sneakers. Sophia, 13, of course checked with her friends that the outfit was cute; they said it was. Her parents didn’t think twice about the clothes.
But a teacher making sure students were in compliance with the dress code at Simpson Middle School in Cobb County, Ga., did not find her outfit appropriate. Lined up with other students as they came into the school, Sophia was asked to put her hands down by her thighs to measure if the rip in her jeans was lower than her fingertips. It was not. She and 15 other girls were written up before first period.
Every Friday since then, Sophia and other students at Simpson Middle School, about 25 miles north of Atlanta, have worn T-shirts that denounce dress codes as “sexist,” “racist” and “classist.” In protesting the rules, some parents and students have used the Cobb County School District’s laissez-faire policy on face coverings — the district leaves it up to parents if their children wear masks at school — as a cudgel. If adhering to a public health measure is optional, they say, why can’t students opt out of a dress code they see as discriminatory?
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Cobb County School District said that the district’s rules for student dress “encourage a focus on learning for all 110,000 students in Cobb, not on what students prefer to wear.”
The student dress code “includes a minimum standard of dress and exists, per the policy, so students dress in a way which is ‘consistent with the formality of school,’” she added.
Eruptions over dress codes are in no way unique to Sophia’s school; there have been many similar conflicts over the years, often citing racial or sexual bias baked into the policies. In 2019, Houston parents chafed at a principal’s guidance on how they should dress to pick up their children from school that many said was inflected with racism and classism. The year before, a teenage girl in Florida was removed from class because she wasn’t wearing a bra.
According to a 2020 study written in part by Todd A. DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has researched the litigation of dress codes in public schools, the focus on covering girls’ bodies contributes to the very problem that dress codes seek to address: the inappropriate sexualization of female students.
In an analysis of dress codes at 25 New Hampshire public schools, the researchers found that most had policies specifically targeting girls, with policies on covering breasts, cleavage, collarbones and shoulders. The study notes that some of the garments prohibited in many school policies, such as tank tops and strapless shirts, are “prohibited because they are considered ‘sexy.’”
“The problem with this theme is the ascribing of ‘provocation’ to female clothing,” the study reads. “In other words, the dress choice of females is presumed to be designed to attract attention from males.”
Sabrina Bernadel, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, agrees that dress codes are disproportionately restrictive toward women and girls.
“Dress codes are definitely sexist,” she said. “They put the onus on girls to not be distracting or not call attention to themselves instead of putting the onus on all students to respect everyone’s body.”
Ms. Bernadel said that when it comes to students being punished for dress code violations, Black and brown girls get written up the most, followed by Black boys, then white girls, then white boys. For Black girls, the issue is not necessarily around their clothes, but their bodies, which tend to be perceived at early ages as more developed or “adult.”
In the short term, disciplinary actions resulting from getting “dress coded” can lead to less instruction time, hindering academic performance. In the long term, code violations can make girls, and especially Black girls, feel “ashamed of how they express themselves and also what they look like,” Ms. Bernadel said.
The up-to-you policy on mask wearing in Cobb County schools reflects one part of the patchwork of masking policies nationwide. In much of the country, it is up to local officials whether masks are required in schools, and most school districts that require face coverings set the rule for all students regardless of age or vaccination status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, teachers and staff members in schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
“Cobb County says that parents are best suited to decide about whether their child wears a mask, but that they are not best suited to decide what the child wears on their bodies,” Sophia wrote in a petition on Change.org that has over 2,000 signatures.
“I don’t think you can pick and choose that reasoning,” Sarah Trevino, Sophia’s mother and a lawyer in the Atlanta area, said of the county’s stance that parents can choose whether their children wear masks. “If you’re going to use that reasoning whether to put a strip of cloth over your child’s face, it should be the same reasoning if you’re going to put a strip of cloth over their thigh.”
According to the Simpson Middle School dress code, “all shorts, skirts and dresses must be fingertip length” — meaning when students holds their arms at their sides, their longest finger must still touch fabric. The code also specifies that “no skin may be exposed above the fingertip.”
Sophia said her main issue with the dress code was that it singled out girls and made them responsible for boys’ actions.
“In school, they think that the boys are just drooling over our shoulders and our thighs,” Sophia said. “They aren’t. They don’t care. And even if they do, that’s not our fault. That’s theirs.”
The language in the Cobb County School District’s website used to match the language found in the Simpson Middle School dress code; for its part, the middle school confirmed that it uses language from the district’s rule book. But late last month, after the protest had attracted media attention, the district appeared to have replaced the rules as previously posted online with a dress code that makes no explicit reference to the “fingertip” rule. The district spokeswoman denied that either the district’s or Simpson Middle School’s dress code had changed.
Like many school dress codes, the Cobb County School District’s policy emphasizes the avoidance of distractions to learning. “All students shall be required to maintain the level of personal hygiene necessary to ensure a healthful school environment,” the policy reads, “and to refrain from any mode of dress which proves to contribute to any disruption of school functions.”
With her petition and the Friday protests, which she says have been joined by 50 to 60 students since they began, Sophia hopes to get the school district’s dress code changed to something gender-neutral and inclusive. Her solution? A dress code that is simply “shirts, bottoms, shoes.”
Such a policy would allow tops that show the abdomen, midriff, neck lines and cleavage and bottoms could expose legs, thighs and hips. Any outfit would need to cover the groin, buttocks and nipples.
She said that her protest and her proposed dress code haven’t received “too much” backlash, and that teachers and members of the community seem to be supportive of her efforts. Sometimes, though, she has to shoot dirty looks at teachers who she thinks are judging her.