“Racist, sexist, unfair.” “Unequally enforced, bothersome.”
These are the words high schoolers Eliska and Samantha used to describe their schools’ dress codes in our report, “Dress Coded: Black girls, bodies, and bias in D.C. schools.” It’s no secret that dress codes in schools are misogynistic, but what many (white) people don’t realize is that dress codes and their enforcement are racialized, as well. And although Dress Coded shares the stories of Black girls over-policed by their school’s dress coded policy, I’ve seen this issue lead to school pushout for Latina girls in my school district who were constantly penalized for their self-expression.
In junior high school — the vulnerable years when girls’ bodies are changing, and when body shame and insecurity is rampant — my school district cracked down on Latina girls the most. While I remember white girls wearing denim Abercrombie shorts and tank tops most days of the year, Latina girls were dress coded frequently. If Latina girls — who often had different and curvier body types than white girls — wore tight clothes on hot days, shorts, or padded bras, they were sent to the office, asked to stay in their gym clothes, or seriously reprimanded.
This not only conveyed that it was okay for full-grown adult teachers to sexualize Latina girls, but also condoned and solidified rape culture in the minds of still-impressionable children. For example, when a 7th grade boy snapped my friend Aisha’s bra strap and she told a teacher, Aisha expected that corrective action would be taken. Instead, the teacher said her tank top was “against the dress code, anyway.” These kinds of words from trusted teachers tell Latina girls that they are responsible for boys’ actions, and this messaging can sow seeds that will affect girls for the rest of our lives. Dress coding of Latinas took away from class time, furthered body shame at a fragile time in girlhood, and furthered race and gender disparity, putting Latina girls at risk.
This was not unique to my school, but I remember the constant fear and anxiety about being dress coded in my junior high years. That anxiety, which takes away from learning and leads to body shame, would be exponential for a Latina girl.
Dress-coding and the policing of Latina girls’ bodies extended to makeup and hair styling choices as well. Due to racist ideas about makeup and hair in Latinx culture, Latina girls in my school system were vilified for their personal grooming choices, constantly labeled as “distracting” or “over the top.”
I remember an 8th grade science teacher sending a Latina peer to the office for using an eyelash curler during class — something I had seen many white girls do without consequence — but only after he explained to her that she was “too pretty to be using that stuff.” This lost my classmate vital class time and resulted in the hyper-sexualization of a preteen by a much older white man. This comes at the intersection of stereotyping Latina women as “spicy” and “seductive”, while also being “troublemakers”; this can lead teachers like mine to believe it’s okay to make flirty comments at a child, while removing her from class for being “disruptive”. Newsflash — using an eyelash curler for three seconds did not disrupt a moment of my learning, but having my peer sent out of the classroom with a creepy comment disrupted my learning enough that I still remember it, almost eight years later.
These stories are not isolated incidents — Latina girls around the country are policed and systematically pushed out of school through practices like dress coding. You can help Latina girls in your school district by looking up the dress code at your school, and using your voice to advocate against sexist, racist dress coding practices. Speaking out against dress codes — and the unequal enforcement of them — is yet another way we can work to Let Her Learn.