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In preparation for our first post-COVID-19 vacation, my sister is becoming an expert on the ins and outs of Disney theme parks. Appropriately, she stumbled across a viral TikTok by user Amanda DiMeo, or @amandaaadimeo, walking her female audience through a neat trick to score a free T-shirt from a park gift shop: Show some underboob. Disney World enforces a guest dress code that prohibits “clothing which, by nature, exposes excessive portions of the skin that may be viewed as inappropriate for a family environment” and cast members apparently may ask violating guests to exchange such attire for a typically pricey gift shop shirt, free of charge. While DiMeo impressed TikTok users by finessing the system, these fun and games are a reflection of the inescapable gender discrimination embedded in many U.S. businesses’ dress codes. 

Generally, in the United States, businesses are allowed to impose a dress code on employees and guests, so long as it does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of factors like sex, race, religion or national origin. In principle, Disney’s online dress code page appears to align with federal standards; in practice, however, their ban on excessive skin could easily unfairly target women trying to escape the Florida heat.

It is reasonable to cultivate a dress standard that reinforces the magic of the Disney parks by protecting people from harm, but judging anyone’s outfit — even DiMeo’s — to be “inappropriate” is subjective. Despite Disney’s defined list of rules, policing skin that is “inappropriate for a family environment” is an easily abused standard clearly directed towards women. Dress codes are a reflection of what their creators — and their enforcers — view to be acceptable expressions of femininity. This gives Disney cast members the power to police and restrict women’s bodies, which throughout American history have been both sexualized and rejected as inherently obscene in public spaces.

Despite having well-worded, clean-cut rules, Disney’s on-paper dress code is not safe from employees’ biases concerning what is and is not acceptable for a woman to wear, which is only compounded by other forms of identity profiling. Women with marginalized bodies, such as larger bodies or religiously clad bodies, are in general at higher risk to be perceived as standing in violation of dress code standards in schools, stores and other public spaces. 

Traditional supporters of dress codes may argue that Disney’s rules support a kid-centered environment, free of adult activities, including anything suggestive of a sexual nature. But embedded within this goal are centuries of policing women’s attire and viewing their bodies as deviant and something to be restricted. Park employees cannot be trusted to act as objective, competent judges and enforcers of a rule that is near impossible to objectively regulate, regardless of the regulation’s intentions. 

Dress codes like Disney’s are unenforceable to the extent that an incompetent judge could abuse and twist the policy in order to police parkgoers unfairly, especially women. Disney’s dress code uses vague language that leaves its real-world application vulnerable to exploitation. If Disney wants to enforce a fair and transparent dress code, it needs to more clearly and publicly define the parameters of “excessive” skin. The more subjectivity involved in enforcing a dress code, the less integrity it holds. A cast member’s own personal biases towards what is inappropriate for a woman to wear may be influenced by the perception that women’s bodies are inherently obscene and unfit for children’s eyes. Dress codes are a societal way of policing what power-holders view as respectable women. In the meantime, justice is served via free T-shirts.

Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at ahancz@umich.edu.