4 things a University of Utah professor says you should know about dress codes

Ana Carolina Antunes says, among other points, that strict standards for dress often point to a lack of trust that adults have in teens.

(Natalia Burton) Natalia Burton was told she couldn't enter the dance at American Leadership Academy in September 2022 because the front of her dress was too low. She and other students protested.

Students at a Utah charter school were turned away from their homecoming dance last month over what administrators saw as dress code violations.

One girl said she was told: “We can see your whole chest. You can’t go in.” Another said a school official told her that “my boobs were too big for my dress.” A third said she was told she “doesn’t have the same body as the model” in a photo she had shown the school beforehand “and cannot wear the same dress.”

Their concerns drew widespread attention after they protested the dress rules for being sexist — prompting a letter from the school’s leadership and another letter from a teacher calling them a “mob.”

You can read the full story on the letters and the students’ reaction here.

And here are four things Ana Carolina Antunes, a gender studies professor at the University of Utah, has to say about school dress codes:

1. Dress codes tend to show a lack of trust by adults.

Antunes believes that often one of the hardest parts for school officials working with teens is “to recognize that they have agency to make their own decisions, even if those decisions aren’t the same ones you would make.”

The role of supervising adults should be to give children the resources they need to be successful, she said, and support the choices they make along the way.

2. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to stop objectification.

If women are the subject of objectification by the people around them, Antunes said, it’s not their duty to stop it by covering up more, especially if the extra attention is coming because of the shape of their body.

“If someone has bigger breasts or wider hips, of course clothes are going to fall different on them,” she said. “… But we are blaming folks for wearing clothes when in reality the issue is how people are seeing the clothes on their bodies.”

She added: “People looking at those bodies have agency, too. They can recognize that these are young people who are trying to have fun and feel comfortable in their own bodies. Whatever meaning they put on those bodies is on them and not on the young people.

3. Dress codes tend to be followed more when they’re discussed openly with students.

The critical function of a dress code should be to prevent distracting attire from taking away from student learning opportunities, Antunes said.

“[Schools] need to have a dialogue with their students,” Antunes said. “What role is the dress code playing in their education?”

That way, students understand what it expected and why, she said, and they’ll be more likely to adhere to it.

4. Teenagers use dress as an important avenue for self-expression.

As children grow into young adults, the increased autonomy for how they want to present themselves through what they wear becomes central to how they perceive themselves, Antunes said.

“For the young people who are going to the dance, it means a lot, right?” she said. “They can wear what they want and they can be free to be who they are in that space.”

But dress codes can deny those opportunities to students, with female and nonbinary kids often being the most affected, she said. Some will see standards as telling them that someone else has decided what they can put on their body instead of allowing for self-expression.