The struggle over double standards in student dress codes is not going away
OOn a Monday morning in April 2018, Lizzy Martinez arrived at Bradenton’s Braden River High School wearing an oversized dark gray braless Calvin Klein shirt underneath – a choice she made because of a bad sunburn after spending the weekend at a local water park would have. In the fifth period, Martinez ended up in the school nurse’s office, where Martinez says Disciplinary Dean Violeta Velazquez made her put on several layers of T-shirts and told her to “jump around” to see if her breasts bounced around.
Velazquez then instructed Martinez, then 17, to put band-aids over her nipples to cover them up. Martinez, now 21 and a full-time student at the University of South Florida, says the experience left her “shamed,” “shamed” and “isolated,” and she was quick to speak out about it. The incident went viral after it was picked up by national news outlets, particularly after it was revealed that the dress code section of the student handbook never mentioned a requirement for female students to wear a bra or for nipples to be covered by underwear.
The Manatee County School District cites Martinez for wearing clothing that exposes body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner “that disrupts the orderly learning environment.”
“The school board statement affirms that students, particularly female students, should be solely responsible for the learning environment of others, rather than teaching male students how to control themselves,” Martinez says. “It’s one thing to advocate for professional clothing education, but to call female students’ bodies vulgar is an over-sexualization of underage children.”
Martinez says she received multiple messages after the incident from fellow students who had also received dress code violations. One told Martinez that Velazquez had told her she had to “dress better for her size” since she was a curvier girl. (Velazquez could not be reached for comment.)
The same week that Martinez received the dress code, a male friend, Markey Vazquez, wore a semi-transparent tight white t-shirt underneath which his nipples and nipple piercings were fully visible. He never had a dress code. Vazquez says he’s “stunned” by the double standards. “I wasn’t stopped at school or looked at by school staff,” he says.
According to Martinez, then-Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene told Martinez’s concerned mother that the administration would add what she called a “statewide policy” to require female students to wear underwear, a decision which, according to Martinez, would cause students to feel uncomfortable and bothered. “Imagine a faculty member in a high school checking to see if you’re wearing underwear,” she says.
Martinez was not the first student to break a student dress code for dubious reasons, and unfortunately not the last either. Every year, young girls in America are subjected to dress codes that enforce the idea that what a girl wears equates to her consenting to being sexualized by others.
While both the Manatee County School District and the Sarasota County School District provide a universal student “code of conduct” that provides a general school dress code for all students in their respective districts, Sarasota County grants the principal of each school the right to use this “Minimum standards” to reflect the “uniqueness of their school community” while also having a final say on “dress appropriateness”. Manatee County grants individual schools the right to create their own dress code based on district requirements, but any rules added or changed are “subject to district approval.”
Such dress codes have become the target of protests, petitions, complaints and lawsuits based on claims of double standards in the treatment of male and female students. As Manatee County School District Communications Director Michael Barber narrates Sarasota Magazine that the Manatee dress code promotes “gender equality,” both Sarasota and Manatee County high schools have been the focus of viral incidents in recent years.
Ten minutes up the road from the Braden River at Lakewood Ranch High School, there have been allegations of harsh penalties for students who break the school’s dress code. Former Lakewood Ranch High School student Alyssa Hamende said that in 2020 she was forced to put duct tape over holes in her jeans that were just above the knee, resulting in rashes and bruising after several hours. Hamende resented what she felt was hypocrisy in the dress code, as shorts that ended over the holes in her jeans would have been acceptable according to the dress code.
Hamende’s distraught father called the school, concerned that the disciplinary action would appear on her permanent transcript, which colleges use for admissions purposes. The violation was treated as a warning, but the written report made no indication that Hamende’s dress code violation was only a minor one and that no other more serious disciplinary action was required.
“It’s not fair that girls at such a young age should be afraid of being objectified because of their choice of clothes,” says Hamende.
Several students and parents have also complained about the lack of regulation for school uniforms, such as cheerleader or color guard outfits. Former Lakewood Ranch High School student Kenzie Horner says she almost got a “perturbation” for showing her shoulders during a school spirit week but was never disciplined when she was in color protective gear at football games, pep talks or school events.
“The dean who dressed me said to me, ‘Let’s see if we can make this look more appropriate for your classmates’ when I wore a strapless yellow dress as Belle when it was a Disney-themed day,” says Horns. She says the statement made her insecure and embarrassed about her body and that she “distracted” the students with her breasts. “I was a bit bustier than other girls,” she says, “so it wasn’t a surprise that the Dean dressed me over the other smaller coeds, who wore leggings and shorter shirts for Spirit Week.”
Horner is now 20 and a student at Southern Methodist University. “I felt singled out because of my body, which makes me feel like I’m responsible for how my body looks naturally,” she says. “It also makes me so angry and frustrated that the administration can choose who can wear ‘inappropriate’ outfits while representing the school, but not in the school.”
AAccording to a report by the National Organization for Women, 50 percent of teenage girls in America say they are “self-conscious” about their bodies, 45.5 percent are considering cosmetic surgery, 40 to 60 percent of elementary-school girls are concerned, “too “to become fat” and 90 percent of people with eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25.
Hamende says she was worried about what others thought of her appearance and wondered if it was her fault for being “distracted”.
“It made me feel like I always have to be careful about what I’m wearing because you don’t want to give the wrong impression,” she says. Horner says she’s become “very self-conscious” since her dress code incident, which has “seriously impacted her mental health.”
In the age of #MeToo, the media and forums have made it easy to expose how schools disproportionately enforce dress code violations against girls. A search on Change.org reveals hundreds of open petitions against individual school dress codes. Many of the petition titles claim that their schools’ dress code is “sexist” or “unfairly enforced.”
Kassidy Saba, a former Sarasota High School student, created a petition in April 2021 claiming that her school’s dress code allows for “bodyshaming of one sex into humble submission consistent with traditional patriarchal values.” The petition went viral while Saba spent the school day at school after being coded for her with dresses and showing her shoulders. Both of Saba’s parents worked full-time and could not bring her a change of clothes.
In less than 24 hours, more than 1,100 students, parents, alumni and other Saba’s petition signed, and pictures of girls wearing modest outfits like long-sleeved shirts and jeans, jogging bottoms and tank tops with thick straps and jackets, all amid claims of punishing themselves for the To oppose student dress code requirements.
The Sarasota High School Student Council introduced a dress code committee to Principal David Jones to work on redesigning the current dress code, but it is unknown if anything was ever changed. (Jones did not respond to a request for comment.)
When Sarasota County School Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin emailed a series of questions about sexism in local dress codes, she wrote, “We have a dress code policy and that is our level of commitment.”
SStudents aren’t the only ones questioning the validity of school officials’ decisions about dress codes.
“As a teacher, I’ve always felt that my focus should be elsewhere and that enforcing the dress code took a lot of time and effort that I just didn’t have,” says Katie Soles, former Lakewood Ranch High School Advanced Placement history teacher. “If we waste time worrying about whether a girl’s shoulders aren’t covered or her shorts are too short, we can’t start the day in a productive way.”
Soles now teaches in North Carolina, where she says it’s easier to “focus on the actual teaching” with a less regulated dress code. “Most of the time, I think dress code violations that the administration or teachers are overly focused on have made it a ‘distraction’ rather than the actual ‘violation’ itself,” she says.