These Are What “Inappropriate” Clothes Look Like

If you're a woman, you know that dress codes are more difficult to follow for women than they are for men. In fact, every woman you know can probably recall an instance (or fifteen) when her outfit was cited as the supposed cause of a problem, whether it was that her V-neck T-shirt was too distracting to fellow teen boys, or that a pair of shorts gave away the fact that she owned a pair of legs (the nerve!). The female body is often blamed as the source of trouble — "distracting other kids" — while boys can wear virtually anything they want, as long as their underwear doesn't show. We asked 13 women to share their stories about the times they've gotten in trouble because of a dress code violation, and felt shame, humiliation, and injustice over an arbitrary rule. Whether the culprit was a V-neck shirt, a word on a pair of velour sweats, or a skirt that didn't pass the notoriously irritating “fingertip” rule, these dress codes show that having your body policed is unfortunately a typical female milestone.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
“I have really long limbs — like, really long. My middle school had a rule that shorts and skirts must be fingertip-length. Well my fingertips come down to my knees when I stand with my arms at my side. Due to my massive wingspan, I got sent home several times in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades because my shorts/skirts were never long enough. I could only wear dorky Bermudas or dresses to school, and it was super uncool (literally and figuratively).”
- Megan, 24
"I went to a Catholic school and wore a uniform. One day each month, we donated $2 to the food pantry (which I was obviously cool with) in order to be able to wear jeans for the day. I was a freshman and I was/am big-breasted. So, I wore jeans (naturally) with a V-neck navy-blue top and an ice-blue puffy vest (holler at the early aughts). After my first-period class, I was called to the principal's office because my V-neck was too low and was 'distracting' my history teacher — a man, who reported me. I burst into tears. This story has no ending except the principal tried to calm me down by telling me what my grades were that term earlier than I was supposed to know (I was/am a nerd, so obviously this worked) — and that my history teacher was a creep who called me Jessie 'The Body' Ventura for a while...until he realized it was inappropriate."
- Jess, 31
"I was wearing a shirt that wasn't three fingers' width on the shoulders and was sent to the principal's office. Since I didn't have a change of clothes, they gave me a size XXL bright orange T-shirt that read: 'Property of North Springs High School.' It was humiliating."
- Hannah, 23
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
"Throughout my middle school and high school experiences, I have had to deal with clueless Physical Education instructors who had no idea what to do when I told them I couldn't wear the standard-issue T-shirts and shorts for P.E. class because my religious requirements necessitated I cover my arms, legs, and head. They were usually men, and they always felt the need to tell me I'd get 'too hot' in whatever long-sleeved/long-pant amendments I had to make to the gym class dress code. Some of them insinuated it would constitute a legal risk if I fainted from the heat. I ended up having to clear it with the principal."
- Tasbeeh
"In high school, I got called to the principal's office for wearing an inappropriate T-shirt which, to be fair, was inappropriate. It was our local college's (Luther Norse) homecoming football game against the Buena Vista Beavers, and the shirt said, 'Norse, weren't you a little hard on the beaver last night?' But the part that infuriated me the most was that I was wearing a hoodie over the shirt, half-zipped up so all you could read was the word 'Norse.' The principal told me it didn't matter if you couldn't see what the shirt said; people knew what it meant. Which to me didn't seem like a far jump from saying your clothes imply certain things about you as a person."
- Haley

"Sophomore year of high school, I would not buy a shirt that didn't show off at least a tiny bit of midriff; baby tees and too-tight tank tops were my favorite things to wear. A few times in passing, the vice principal mentioned something to me, which I was quick to blame on my extra-long torso. Then, at some point during the year, a letter was sent home reminding everyone of the school dress policy. Written in pen at the top, it read: 'Danielle, please take note.' Years later, my mom fessed up to writing it as leverage to get me to dress more appropriately (it didn't work)."
- Danielle, 30
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
“I went to Catholic school, where the only thing standing between a teenage boy and eternal damnation was making sure that my skirt was longer than fingertip-length. The vice principal was the only woman who wasn't a nun in the administration, so it fell on her to be 'the enforcer.' She was a really no-nonsense type who clearly found the whole thing distasteful, but we would still all have to line up in front of her in the auditorium at random so she could look at every one of us and single out the girls whose skirts were too short.”
- Sam, 24 “When I was in middle school, my mom signed me up for golf lessons at the country club. After one painful lesson with the scummy old pro, my mom got a phone call. The country club had informed her that the women's golf skirt I had worn was far too short to take lessons with the pro, and next time, I needed to wear pants. Luckily, my mom never let me go back.”
- Emily, 23 "At an old job at a university, I was constantly getting in trouble for my clothes. The actual dress code was just 'no jeans, no shorts,' but I got sent home SO many times for things that my boss claimed violated that dress code (but totally didn't): a denim jacket, calf-length capris (because she thought anything that wasn't a long pant was a 'short'), navy twill slacks that she said 'looked like they might be jeans from far away,' and, my personal favorite, 'non-corporate earrings.' What even is that?"
- Amelia, 30 "In 7th grade, I was wearing a light-pink American Eagle tee that had cupcakes emblazoned across my chest in some kind of pink glitter. My male science teacher pulled me out of class and sent me to the principal's office. When I asked why, he said, 'You know why," and pointedly looked at my tee. I honestly did not understand until my mom brought me a new T-shirt and explained it. I still think it was kind of pervy of him!"
- Caroline, 24
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
"When I was about 13, a bunch of kids at my school were forced to go to this thing called Junior Assembly (I hear in some parts of the country it’s called Cotillion). Basically, you have to get dressed up and 'learn how to dance.' It sucks for a thousand reasons, but mainly because the boys ask you to dance, and for a weird, late-blooming gal like myself, it’s like being picked last for sports all over again. Anyway, not only did you have to dress up, but they made women wear white gloves for no reason. One week, I realized right as my carpool arrived that I had NO IDEA where my white gloves were. I decided to just go gloveless, and lo and behold, they told me I could not participate! Bummer, right? So I sat out the whole night and watched all the other kids at my school awkwardly try to touch each other while under the watchful eyes of some weird adults who enjoy spending their free time torturing young humans in various states of puberty.”
- Alison, 25 "I was dress-coded continuously in high school. Once, it was because the maxi dress I was wearing showed my butt at a 'certain angle in the sun.' It got to the point where I would show up to detention for a write-up, and the woman would say 'Now what?!' and just dismiss me."
- Kayla, 20 "When I was in seventh grade, I regularly wore Juicy Couture terrycloth and velour tracksuits to school (it was the mid-2000s, sorry not sorry). One afternoon while I was in the library, our teacher pulled me aside and said I had been called to the principal's office. As a straight-A, goody-two-shoes-type of student, I freaked. But I learned that it actually had nothing to do with my studies; I was in trouble for wearing sweatpants that read 'JUICY' across the behind. He called my mother and explained that my bottoms were both inappropriate and distracting, to which my mother asked: 'Why is a middle-aged man staring at my 12-year-old daughter's ass?!' Got him."
- Erin, 25

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