Cedarville University maintains a dress code characterized by archaic principles of “modesty,” a term that is disproportionately applied to women to label them as distractions to men in the academic environment. Cedarville claims to strive for professionalism in its dress code but merely promotes gender stereotypes: men are sex-hungry and women must guard themselves by covering as much of their bodies as possible. Cedarville’s policies are not only a bother to students forced to wear jeans on hot days and struggle to find dresses with straps large enough to cover a good amount of their seductive shoulders, but it finds no basis in Scripture. Instead, it finds its basis in blatant sexism propagated by school administration and enforced by misinformed Resident Assistants (RAs).
The rationale for Cedarville’s dress code policy is to encourage servant attitudes toward Christ and others through their dress and appearance. I guess “servant attitudes” go out the window when the personal cautions (PCs, Cedarville’s form of a student write-up) start flowing.
Cedarville’s first rule is undoubtedly pointed at women. “Clothing should not be excessively short or revealing,” the handbook reads. However, no mention is made of men wearing very short shorts or tank tops that expose most of their upper body. Instead, examples are lengths of skirts and dresses, covering up one’s butt if wearing leggings (except if you’re in the gym, which makes zero sense as a distinction), and no low-cut shirts or “immodest” straps, all of which are examples that apply exclusively to women.
Cedarville’s second policy is simply a violation of First Amendment protection of free speech–which is nothing new–by stating that “Clothing should not have slogans that are inconsistent with University values.” This statement is conveniently vague, which is part of why Cedarville was awarded a “Warning” rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last year. It simply gives the university power to interpret and discipline against any slogans it deems to be against its values. It does not only rule out graphics containing vulgarity, nudity, or clearly inappropriate messaging. It goes a step further into the dangerous realm of subjectivity in which Cedarville seemingly loves to reside.
Later, the handbook states, “Shorts, sweatpants, and pajama pants should not be worn to class or chapel.” The shorts policy really only applies during the first few weeks of the fall semester and the last couple of months of the spring semester. However, is the symbolism of wearing pants really more important than students being comfortable during the summer months? Why not allow students to be comfortable as they pursue their education? Cedarville students are not more professional than, for example, OSU students just because they have to wear jeans when it’s 84 degrees outside. This rule seems pointless.
“Clothing should be gender appropriate” is just a bizarre rule to have. I do not know if the rule exists to prevent men from wearing dresses but once again this rule seems to apply exclusively to women. Women are far more likely to dress “masculine” than men are to dress “feminine” because most men’s clothing is basically unisex.
Other rules include wearing shoes in buildings, wearing shirts outside of dorms, and removing hats in classes or chapel. These rules seem fine, except that the hat policy is inconsistently enforced and students find themselves victims of a double standard.
As impractical as these policies are, Cedarville’s enforcement of the dress code is perhaps even worse. Cedarville’s culture of favoritism extends from administrators protecting those close to them from discipline down to the Resident Assistants (RAs) that they train and grant power to over other students.
RAs do not seem to be well-trained on the dress code requirements–but then again, perhaps they are simply victims of its vagueness and subjectivity. Many RAs abuse their power, but at the same time, they are brainwashed into believing they must confront people with minor dress code violations (or even non-violations that they subjectively deem questionable) or face getting punished themselves by another RA who snitches on their lack of uniformity.
Here are a few examples of dress code enforcement:
One of Cedarville’s softball players was PCed on her way to practice because her softball pants were deemed inappropriate. A girl went to a volleyball game wearing shorts and an oversized sweatshirt that went almost to her knees and was told she needed to change because it gave a bad image that she was not wearing pants. There are dozens of instances of girls wearing baggy shirts or sweatshirts or coats over leggings and still being dress coded.
A girl wore a high-low dress that extended to the knees in the front and the ankles in the back and was told she needed to change–she was late for class but her RA told her “then change quickly.”
After Mission Impossible, a female student was locked out of her room and was walking around campus in leggings–acceptable dress according to the dress code since Mission Impossible involved exercise–but was stopped and told she needed to put on some pants because she “showed too much.”
A girl was wearing shorts–not short shorts, normal length women’s shorts–and was told to change by an RA because they were too revealing.
One female student wrote, “Wore a shirt that had long sleeves, but the shoulders were cut out. Was told I had to change because the straps by my neck weren’t ‘quite two fingers in width.’ Heaven forbid Cedarville men be exposed to my shoulders.”
A girl wore a dress with black leggings underneath. An RA complemented her outfit and then proceeded to say she would have to PC her because her dress had ridden up in the back.
A girl was dress coded in her own hall when the dress code does not apply to residence halls (clearly, based on the amount of people I’ve seen traversing back and forth to the bathroom in their underwear).
A girl went to the gym wearing leggings but knew she was meeting friends immediately after, so she brought a giant coat that covered her completely. She wore it the entire time until she sat down in her seat. Within seconds, an RA approached her and told her she would have to PC her. The student explained that she had come from the gym and brought a coat to cover up, but the RA did not care. Even those who try to follow the rules are punished.
My personal favorite story is that a student wore a beanie in class to cover up her braided hair and because it was winter. An RA chewed her out and tattled to the professor. The professor said, “And? Go sit back down.” Bravo.
Clearly, enforcement makes no sense. Students are not only targeted when they clearly break the dress code but even when they do fall into subjective RA standards. For crying out loud, how can you get PCed when you are wearing Cedarville-authorized sports practice clothes? Based on dozens of stories, the issue often seems to arise when girls look too good in their clothes. RAs seem driven by both jealousy and the sexualization of women. News flash: shoulders, knees, legs, and stomachs are not sexual. Pants that fit well are not sexual. If a girl fills out her pants or shorts, more power to her. We’re really going to punish girls for hitting leg day consistently and/or having good genes?
The answer is yes, we are. Because as much as Christian culture condemns the sexual revolution, there are few institutions that seem more deeply affected by it. Sex has become an object of fear, so anything that could be interpreted to be sexual in any way is an object of fear as well and must be shut down.
All this to say, enforcement is out of control. RAs do not enforce rules correctly or evenly. Women are sexualized while men freely wear shorts, sweatpants, and hats to classes and cutout tank tops that show most of their chest—usually without discipline. But heaven forbid a sliver of a woman’s stomach show. There is a massive double standard when it comes to dress code enforcement of men as opposed to women.
Furthermore, most RAs are absolutely horrible at giving out PCs and have no idea how to handle confrontation from any non-brainwashed student who dares to defy their “authority.” Any disagreement is labeled as disrespectful behavior.
One student received a warning about wearing leggings on campus and the next day wore them, but with a long shirt to cover the back. The RA who warned her told her that her outfit was inappropriate as she was on her way to class. She told the RA her outfit fell within the dress code (which it did) and that she did not have time to give the RA her ID because she would be late for class. The next day, she received a report stating that she had been PCed and was reported as being disrespectful and confrontational for disagreeing with the RA. The RA also approached her friend group to force them to give up her name. The student requested a meeting with the RA and RD to address the situation, figuring maybe the RA had gotten the wrong impression, but the RA refused to have a meeting. After speaking with other students in this RA’s residence hall, the student found that this was a consistent pattern of behavior. Somehow, RAs who consistently cause issues like this continue to maintain their positions of authority.
At the very least, stop sexualizing women on this campus through discriminatory dress codes and enforcement procedures and figure out how to address real dress code violations appropriately and fairly.
Biblical Teaching on Dress
Cedarville uses two verses to address modesty, both of which only address women. 1 Timothy 2 is part of CU’s Biblical support for its dress code. It says, “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”
Scripture’s definition of modesty here is ensuring decency and not dressing opulently with excessive adornment to draw attention to yourself.
Clothing has completely changed from what it once was during the time the New Testament was written. Paul says that braided hair or jewelry is inappropriate. Peter agrees. Pants were not even worn by men during Paul’s time, much less by women. Furthermore, styles such as braids or wearing jewelry had very different meanings during that time. Thus, we must read into the spirit and context of the text. In the preceding verses, Paul calls believers to live quiet and peaceful lives as Christ mediates on our behalf. “Therefore,” he writes, men must not draw attention to themselves through disagreement but should live in prayer, quietness, and peace. Likewise, women should not draw attention to themselves by wearing clothes that are indecent or excessive, such as wearing clothes that are incredibly expensive or jewelry that is meant to flaunt their wealth.
Cedarville’s dress code does not follow Biblical teaching. It follows faux man-made doctrines about dress and ties “good behavior” and being a good member of a “Christian Community” to an antiquated dress code that puts all of the responsibility on women to cover themselves up to avoid the apparently untamable perverted eyes of men. It puts the blame on the woman rather than the sinful thoughts of another man. Nothing is immodest or suggestive about leggings, for example. They are the exact same as jeans or a skirt when it comes to modesty. Shoulders are the furthest thing from sexual. What about women’s shoulders specifically is sexual? Men can wear barely-there tank tops in the gym without consequence. For that matter, women can wear leggings and other tight clothing in the gym, but once they exit the building it becomes a problem. This makes absolutely no sense. If this type of dress is acceptable for some people in some places, it is acceptable, full stop. Of course, there are exceptions such as more professional environments, but wearing leggings to a Biology lab is not less appropriate than wearing them to the gym.
While on the subject of Biblical teaching, Proverbs 20:10 says, “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”
Cedarville needs to eliminate these double standards–these unjust, unequal weights and measures. They are far more unbiblical than a girl exposing her shoulders or wearing pants that accentuate her body made in the image of God.
Psychological Effects of Dress Codes
In a study performed by the National Women’s Law Center, they found that dress codes enforce the idea that women are distractions for men which causes women to underperform educationally because they become self-conscious and do not want to stand out.
According to The Atlantic, “Educators and sociologists, too, have argued that dress codes grounded in such logic amplify a broader societal expectation: that women are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention and that those wearing what could be considered sexy clothing are “asking for” a response.”
At best, dress codes are petty and cause unnecessary discomfort to students in an already difficult social and academic environment. At worst, it perpetuates rape culture which is the idea that sexual assault is inevitable and partially the fault of the person assaulted. Laura Bates, founder of The Everday Sexism Project, wrote for TIME, “When a school takes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behavior, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Students are being groomed to perpetuate the rape culture narrative that sits at the very heart of our society’s sexual violence crisis. It matters very much indeed.”
Not only does it send the wrong message about women to men, it sends the wrong message about men to women. Shauna Pomerantz of Brock University said it well: “It’s saying the male response is your fault. Your body is causing negativity…It is [also] offensive to men. It suggests they don’t have the ability to talk to a female student without going wild.”
Over and over it has been shown in studies that dress codes disproportionately affect women (you can google it if you don’t believe me). This objectification leads to psychological effects on women who fear being a “stumbling block” for another male.
Let me make something clear to the women reading this. Wearing clothes that make you comfortable, confident, and contained (you know what I mean, probably don’t wear a bikini to class) is all you should ever have to worry about. A man’s response to your clothing is between him and God. And to the men, you are better than that. If you arrived on campus tomorrow and all girls started wearing leggings or shorts, you would not lose your minds and be consumed by sexual fantasies.
Title IX is a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any school that accepts federal funding, which Cedarville does. It reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In August of 2021, a federal appeals court ruled that dress codes may not discriminate on the basis of sex according to Title IX. The school in question was an “indirect” recipient of federal funding, much like Cedarville University. The court stated, “The text of Title IX is clear. The statute broadly prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. That sweeping prohibition is followed by a handful of exceptions. Dress codes are not listed among those exceptions.”
In other words, Cedarville may have a dress code as long as it does not constitute sex-based discrimination. However, as we have seen, the dress code is disproportionately applied to women and specifically addresses women in its specifications, not men.
The ACLU says, “Dress codes that are targeted at or unevenly enforced against particular groups of students may violate laws prohibiting race and sex discrimination. Dress codes are frequently unevenly enforced against girls for wearing clothing that is considered a “distraction” to boys.”
Cedarville’s dress code is one such example. The dress code clearly targets women over men and therefore constitutes clear discrimination. Not only does it represent women as a distraction to men, but it prohibits free expression by disallowing any messaging inconsistent with university values.
According to the ACLU, “The First Amendment prohibits schools from picking and choosing which views students are allowed to express. All views have to be treated equally, so long as they are not obscene or disruptive. This means that if a school permits items like t-shirts with slogans, buttons, or wristbands, it has to permit them no matter what message they express.”
Of course, Cedarville can argue that it maintains religious exemption which is true to an extent. However, if Cedarville chooses to keep a restriction on free speech, it must be more specific. Its vague nature allows improper enforcement and discriminatory practice.
Based on the court’s recent ruling, Leah Reynolds of TNG Consulting recommends, “Schools should pay careful attention when implementing sex-specific dress codes, as courts may find a violation of Title IX, especially when those codes are based on chivalry, modesty, and other antiquated notions of propriety for girls that are not similarly applied to boys.”
In summary, Cedarville’s dress code is impractical. It forces both men and women to wear clothes that are not comfortable based on antiquated ideas of “professionalism.” Furthermore, the dress code falsely claims to be based on Biblical standards when in actuality it is based on man-made standards of so-called modesty. Finally, the dress code’s uneven application and specification only about female dress standards dangerously ride the line of legality.
What can be done about Cedarville’s harmful dress code?
In the short term, we would encourage students to fill out the “Changing Campus Culture” survey provided by Cedarville’s Title IX office this past Monday and send written complaints to key administrators such as Dr. White, Dr. Wood, Dr. May, and Dean Brad Smith about the discriminatory dress code, particularly if it has affected you or those close to you. Also share this post to raise awareness about this issue.
In the long term, Cedarville University must alter its dress code. It is not merely an inconvenience. It goes deeper to affect the hearts and minds of students for the worse. It is impractical, unbiblical, and illegal. It is time for change, and the only way the change will occur is by students speaking out to the administration. We can complain all we want, but if we want things to be different we need to speak out now, often, and effectively.