Education May Never Be “Great Equalizer,” But Must Model Equity

Model and actress, Emily Ratajkowski gained fame from a misogynistic and exploitive music video, but has since emerged as a complicated and important feminist voice confronting the sexualizing of women and body shaming.

Ratajkowski’s Instagram account mainly offers personal and professional photographs of Ratajkowski in various states of undress, but she is also prone to using that platform for the occasional political message.

Recently, she posted a grainy photo of crudely taped note challenging dress codes in schools for discriminating against females; as the note states, “INSTEAD OF SHAMING GIRLS FOR THEIR BODIES, TEACH BOYS THAT GIRLS ARE NOT SEXUAL OBJECTS.”

I shared this on social media myself, and encountered a number of not surprising responses—many of which where the typical “but” offered by men when sexism is exposed.

The central message of the note posted by Ratajkowski is both well documented [1] and urgent in terms of the essential inequity found in many traditional school policies such as dress codes and disciplinary guidelines and outcomes: Dress codes are sexist and school discipline (notably suspension and expulsion) is racist—paralleling the same inequities in U.S. society.

School dress codes and discipline policies, then, represent the tragic failure of claiming that formal education in the U.S. is the “great equalizer.”

Not only is that claim untrue, but also the reality of how formal education reflects and perpetuate social inequities is even more damning.

And while a strong case can be made for reforming traditional public education so that school can be the “great equalizer,” I remain skeptical that school reform alone will ever reach this ideal.

In short, we need public policy that directly confronts the cancers of racism, classism, and sexism—the great inequities that thrive in the U.S.

But my skepticism doesn’t justify ignoring the equally great failures of public education. At the very least, we must create a public education system that is a model for the sort of equity we envision in our so-called free nation.

Dress codes that place burdens disproportionately on females are entrenching sexism, body shaming, and rape culture (for an extreme version, consider the lack of institutional care at Baylor University), school discipline practices that initiate and parallel the racially inequitable criminal justice system—these are but two, although significant, examples of how public schooling remains trapped in an accountability paradigm that neither recognizes nor corrects inequity because standards and high-stakes testing are themselves inequitable, teacher assignment is inequitable, tracking and gate-keeping of advanced courses are inequitable, charter schools and school choice are inequitable, and grade-retention is inequitable.

Dress codes may seem to be a somewhat insignificant but necessary part of formal education, but, in fact, dress codes are ugly reminders that we have failed to create schools that model the type of fair and just world to which we aspire.

For Ratajkowski, her own feminism may have ironically begun because of the exact failures of these attitude:

In eighth grade, a vice principal snapped my bra strap in front of an entire room of my classmates and other teachers. She did it because the strap was falling out from my tank top and that broke the school’s dress code.

The institutional shaming of young girls is the seed of misogyny and rape culture just as the disproportionate criminalizing of young black males and females in school discipline codes is the seed of mass incarceration.

If our education system cannot be the “great equalizer,” it must at least be a model of a fair and just way of being.

See Also

Dress Codes in Schools: Spaghetti Straps, Midriffs; Adults’ Need for Control, Steve Nelson

[1] See The Sexism of School Dress Codes, Li Zhou; The Anatomy Of A Dress Code, Juana Summers; How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture, Laura Bates; Girls Fight Back Against Gender Bias in School Dress Codes, Brenda Alvarez. Also, the research:

“Tank Tops Are Ok but I Don’t Want to See Her Thong”: Girls’ Engagements With Secondary School Dress Codes, Rebecca Raby

Cleavage in a Tank Top: Bodily Prohibition and the Discourses of School Dress Codes, Shauna Pomerantz

Polite, Well-dressed and on Time: Secondary School Conduct Codes and the Production of Docile Citizens, Rebecca Raby

Class‐Room Discipline: power, resistance and gender. A look at teacher perspectives, Kerry H. Robinson

Headscarves and Porno-Chic: Disciplining Girls’ Bodies in the European Multicultural Society, Linda Duits

4 thoughts on “Education May Never Be “Great Equalizer,” But Must Model Equity”

  1. I keep thinking that if we knew how to greatly equalize everyone, we wouldn’t consign the process to schools

  2. I am so glad to hear other people saying what I always want to shout from the rooftops! I was about to add something about standardized testing and you said it. And right on. I work in an urban school and I never understand how we justify taking more and more instructional time away from “underperforming” students to test them more and more. Tests don’t teach and other kids in more privileged districts don’t get tested as much with city testing added to state and national testing the way my kids do. No wonder they are behind. They keep loosing time where they get taught and learn!

  3. As a school administrator I was often confronted by adults who complained about a students being disrespectful to them, and at the same time students complaining about adults treating them disrespectfully. My response to both was that if you want respect, then you have to show respect. As adults, our job is to be a role model for civil behavior we expect. When we treat a student disrespectfully by yelling, or shaming them in any way (bra strap incident), then they will respond in kind. But if we show them what a respectful interaction looks like, then they will have great role models on how to interact with others. There are appropriate ways to dress according to norms in different contexts. What a great discussion to have with students.
    Diversity is a great thing. We should encourage a thoughtful discourse with our students. They are at an age where they are defining how they see themselves and others. I find they make good decisions when given good information to make informed choices. How we dress is a choice we all make daily, given the resources available to us. It may be one of the few creative outlets available. Isn’t it great to live in a country where we have that freedom? Teaching students how to have a voice should be part of education. It is the foundation of our democracy.
    Every generation has had a dress code that defines them. Let’s teach our girls to be strong and independent, instead of compliant and quiet. To believe that their voice matters. Let’s teach our boys about equality. Our students learn by what we model, more than by what we say. Our actions speak way louder than any of our words. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I do expect everyone to accept my freedom to express myself. Our students should have that freedom also.
    The double standards are caused by ignorance. Adults in schools should model for our female and male students what fairness and justice look like, instead of perpetuating inequality and injustice. Then maybe those students will stand up and demand a more just society. This is just as important today as ever. Especially when our students are bombarded daily with political rhetoric that is so full of hate and disrespect for anyone who is not a white male. We must have the courage to speak against this type of bigotry.

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