When Beaumont resident Erica Alyse Edgerly posted pictures on Facebook of the outfit that prompted Orangefield High School to send her little sister home for violating the dress code, she didn’t expect the images to go viral or draw attention from publications all over the country. Yet within two weeks, the photos and her accompanying post were shared more than 95,000 times and only recently has the steady flow of headlines slowed down.
The story of the honors student who was sent home for wearing leggings and a baggy shirt to school was picked up by local news, national news, a top post on Buzzfeed, and a handful of feminist blogs. Different stories highlighted different parts of the story. Some played up the fact that the student sent home was an honors student, others emphasized the school’s draconian dress code policy, and all of them drew outrage from the inherent sexism that comes with telling teenage girls to cover up in public.
Edgerly updated her Facebook in the days following the viral post to clarify that she never meant to attack the high school for enforcing its own rules.
“I’m not the one bringing negative attention to a school district, considering I never said one negative thing about the specific school. I’m talking about schools in general,” Edgerly writes. “Believe what you want, blame me if you want, just don’t blame my family or my sister. I’m an adult and I can take it. But I didn’t share this 82,000 times myself. The rest of the world did that.”
Edgerly’s point is a bigger one, and it’s a point we’re familiar with by now. Schools all over the country, through highly-specific dress code policies, are telling teenage girls to cover themselves to avoid unwanted attention.
Internet and media outrage over school penalties for dress code violations is nothing new. We love to freak out online when a student is sent home from school for wearing leggings as pants or is made to wear an outfit that draws attention to the fact that they broke the rules. Strictly-enforced, one-sided dress code policies are one of the easier examples of sexism to hold up and pick apart.
This kind of thing happens relatively frequently now. Last May, a school in Texas sent 160 students home in a single day during a dress code crackdown in an event that led to a sit-in protest and a Change.org petition. Around the same time, a teenager in Virginia was sent home from prom when she was told the male chaperones were staring at her dress.
The outrage and pressure to change the policy is there—but schools almost never respond, except, like in Edgerly’s case, to say it’s their job to uphold school policy and create a safe learning environment. So even when a single example of school dress code politics, like this most recent one from Orangefield High School, attracts a national audience of readers who would like to see the policy changed, it’s highly unlikely anything’s going to happen.
As Edgerly points out in her follow-up posts on Facebook, this isn’t necessarily the school’s fault. Plenty of other districts in plenty of other states have similar rules about how long a dress, shirt, skirt, or shorts should be, and whether or not leggings qualify as real pants. There are nuances between schools, but the same general principle applies: the rules are there to protect the untarnished, distraction-free learning environment.
Having a dress code policy is all good and fine, especially in a building that regularly holds hundreds of fourteen to eighteen-year-olds for the majority of the year. But when those policies attempt to control things like the wandering male gaze, there’s an easy case to be made for perpetuating sexism. In Orangefield’s policy, for example, five of the thirteen listed rules specifically target women’s dress. The majority of the other rules apply to gender-neutral clothing items. The only item that mentions something men cannot wear concerns piercings, and who can and can’t have them.
In an interview with a local news station, Edgerly said the post was meant to draw attention to the fact “that even still in 2015 women aren’t seen as equal, and women are always seen as such sexual human beings,” as evidenced by her 17-year-old sister being sent home for wearing leggings and a long t-shirt to school. Clearly, people resonated with what she had to say, which, when you break it down, was nothing more than the same critique that’s been circulating for years — it’s unfair to have (sexist) double-standards written into your school handbook.
Orangefield High School has yet to bend beneath the onslaught of pressure and attention, and they probably won’t. But what Edgerly, and most of the 95,000 people who shared the post, is waiting on is a culture shift she thinks is a long time coming.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Oines.