Before we get too far into this, I want you to go here and listen to The Faint’s Dress Code. Especially you, Meatbum. I’ll wait. I think it’s my new favourite thing ever invented. And, while you’re doing that, I’m just going to say I miss Devo.
Okay. You’re back. Awesome!
Dress code. Gender bias. Hypersexualisation. Whore/Slut. Individuality.
Many public places have dress codes. “No shirt, no shoes, no service”. “Please wear a head covering”. “No street clothes”. There are reasons for every dress code; some more logical than others. When it comes to kids and school, though, people lose their shit faster than a college kid after whiskey night. Most dress codes in school (particularly in high school but often in elementary school) seem geared specifically to girls. Consider the following, taken from the elementary and high schools in my area:
Elementary: Students are expected to dress in a neat and appropriate manner. Outside apparel (hats, jackets, and wet or muddy footwear) are not to be worn in the school. Please ensure your child dresses in such a way that demonstrates modesty. Please avoid: midriff shirts, spaghetti strap shirts, short shorts and messages that refer to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Students should have one pair of runners at school for inside and gymnasium wear. Also Grade Six, Seven and Eight students are expected to bring gym clothing for their physical education classes. Students are invited to shower following vigorous activity.
High School: Hats are not allowed to be worn in the classroom, except for special school related events. Footwear must be worn in the building at all times.
School staff determines what is appropriate clothing. Students wearing inappropriate clothing will be asked to change the offending garment. Simplicity and good taste are safe guides.
It looks like the former (which is the dress code for the elementary school) is picking out in greater detail clothes that girls would wear rather than those boys would wear. I want to know why it’s important for a six-year-old child to demonstrate “modesty”, and I would also like to know what the definition of “modesty” is. If you’re telling a six-year-old that showing their arms, back, or legs is wrong, there’s something wrong with you. Because I have boys, and because my boys to date have not been interested in wearing spaghetti straps, midriff shirts, short shorts, or clothing with messages that refer to alcohol, drugs, and sex (I think they meant and/or there, because otherwise that seems like an oddly specific message to ban), I have not had to deal much with the dress code. I’m concerned that the high school dress code basically leaves “offending garment” up to staff. That’s pretty uninformative. Are students supposed to call ahead of time to clear their wardrobe with the staff?
Do you know how mortifying it is to be called out of your class/assembly to the office to be told you have to change your clothes because you’re not dressed appropriately? ESPECIALLY if it’s a staff member of the opposite gender? Do you know how CREEPY and humiliating it is to have a male teacher/administrator tell you that the way you dress is distracting the male students? I can tell you from experience, it can be life-altering. A little guideline here would be nice.
You’re not an idiot. You know that what they’re saying here is “don’t dress like a slut, and don’t dress like a slob”. They will couch that in terms of “show some respect for yourself and for your fellow students”. I don’t have a problem with that sentiment, except that these dress codes are dictating what is slovenly or slutty attire, and that’s just not cool.
What’s wrong with having a dress code that says: “Our school values respect, professionalism, and a focussed learning environment, and those values are reflected in our dress code. Attire that is not appropriate in a professional workplace or place of worship is not appropriate attire for school. We appreciate individual expression, and encourage each student to take pride in their personal presentation”? If someone takes exception to the way a student dresses, it should be up to the staff and administration to address that concern *with the person who complained*. Find out why it’s upsetting them. Don’t just take the easy way out (easy for you; not for the students) and tell the student whose dress has upset someone to go home and change. Use this as a way to demonstrate professional and respectful discussion.
Here’s one of the subtexts about all of this that really pisses me off: that girls displaying their shoulders or backs or thighs or whatever part of their body in some way has a deleterious effect on the male students. That male students are *unable to concentrate* if there’s a girl’s bare shoulder in the room.
a) Teenagers are unable to concentrate *most of the time*. This is a SCIENTIFIC FACT. Their brains are still developing. You can try all you want to force adolescents to act like adults, but for the most part, they can’t. It’s not because they’re trying to be assholes; it’s because their brains aren’t adult brains.
b) Boys cannot control their sexual desires. This, to put it bluntly, is utter bullshit. Adolescents are flooded with sex hormones, and they are *all* horny, *all the time*. Boys, girls, folks in between or uncertain or undecided about their gender – they are all full of crazy hormones that make their bodies react to things in weird and unpredictable ways. Boners happen, people. Girl boners and boy boners. Sometimes it’s because of a shoulder; sometimes it’s because of a granola bar. Sometimes, there’s no reason. Teens think about sex all the time, and whether someone’s shoulder is covered or bare *isn’t going to make a difference*. Folks attracted to boobs will still think about boobs, whether or not any part of that boob is anywhere near visible. Folks attracted to bums will still think about bums, regardless of how short the shorts are or how tight the jeans are. For the love of little baby Jesus in a sparkly red Speedo(tm), teenagers are distracted by thoughts of LUNCH as much as they are distracted by thoughts of bare shoulders. To blame boys for not being able to control their urges is sexism. And to blame GIRLS for boys not being able to control their own urges is just stupid. It’s a throwback to outdated puritanical ideals about sex (and women in particular) being “dirty”. So get over it.
c) Certain kinds of clothing are morally wrong because it is provocative. “Provocative” is an interesting choice here. It connotes intent. So by telling a student that they are dressed provocatively, you’re telling them they are choosing to cause annoyance or to arouse sexual desire. That might be the case. I know when I was into punk culture, I wore things that made people angry or disgusted. But I dressed that way because I liked it. It looked good. I didn’t get up in the morning and pick out my “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” shirt because I wanted to piss people off. I got up in the morning and wore that because I love the band and I love the song and it was my favourite shirt. (Aside, RIP Nazi Punks Fuck Off shirt.) I’d be willing to give most people a pass on the whole “you wore that tank top because you wanted people to get boners looking at you” accusation because I honestly don’t believe that giving people boners is at the top of the list of why people dress the way they do.
d) There’s something bigger at work here, and that is how we each of us is taught (or learns) to assess attractiveness. Regardless of gender, we learn that extremely toned, athletic bodies are the “norm” and the goal. Big boobs on girls and wide, muscular shoulders on boys – that’s what everyone wants, right? So instead of focusing on style that empowers each of us, we are pigeonholed into the lowest common denominator – we believe something is attractive/stylish because that’s what we’re told is attractive/stylish.
None of this is going to be solved in an afternoon. But I do applaud the students who stand up for their beliefs and opinions. I applaud the young woman who told her school that how someone else reacts to what she chooses to wear is not her fault. If she dresses in something that she has worn or would wear to church, what makes wearing it to school so bad? It’s okay for people to have sexy thoughts about one another in church but in school, it’s bad? Cue the discussion about how sex is not bad or dirty, bodies are not naughty, and people are not sex objects.