Last week, about 30 students at Menihek High School in Labrador City were sent home for violating the school dress code. It’s just one of several similar stories that have played out across the country.
It seems the first warm days of late spring in Canada cause shorts and tanks to break out in school hallways like dandelions on your lawns.
To be fair, debates about school clothing codes have been ongoing for longer than this current crop of teens has been alive. Can you wear T-shirts with political slogans or Bart Simpson? Are jeggings and yoga pants permissible? What about muscle tees and baggy-arsed jeans? How short is a mini?
The issue in Menihek is not isolated.
In Canada and in the U.S., school dress codes have been challenged by kids and parents alike, and the root for many of the challenges is the moral imperative that lies behind the rules.
I found these stories troubling for several reasons, not the least of which is that women are once again responsible for men’s behaviour/response. In fact, in almost all cases, young women were disciplined for their clothing choices as the shorts or bra straps would pose a distraction to boys and, it is alleged, among male teachers, too.
The school in Labrador made a huge mistake in placing the responsibility for “distraction” on the female students as the main reason for enforcing the dress code. Dress codes shouldn’t be used for body shaming, but for regulating expectations re: professionalism for students and teachers in a learning environment.
I’ll talk more about that later.
But let’s take a look at the argument that clothing is a distraction. As a friend pointed out, for teens, everything is a distraction. That said, I find it a bit disingenuous to say that pointing out that certain kinds of clothing sexualizes teens means people’s minds are in the gutter.
The reality is that a goodly number of clothes for sale these days are styled to show off the body, male or female, to highlight one’s assets, as it were, and in the cases of our warmer months (or days as the case may be), to enjoy the heat of sun on our skin.
A better question to ponder might be how young is too young to wear these kinds of clothes, and where?
One of my friends despaired of finding clothing suitable for her six-year-old, as everything was designed to be a mini version of clothing worn by much older females. Neon tones and glittery, animal-themed decals could not disguise the sub-text to midriff baring tops, low slung jeans and spaghetti straps.
My friend thought these kinds of clothing styles inappropriate for her daughter’s age.
And here’s a key point: as her daughter grew up, she also thought them inappropriate generally for the school environment.
I have nothing against shorts, miniskirts, tanks, tube tops and the like. They are great for the beach or the park, and sometimes even a club, and at no time anywhere does the wearing of a particular item signify an open invitation for sexual advances or serve as an opportunity for slutshaming.
But they have no place in the schools, including high school. Nor do they have a place in other environments, like work, places of worship or funeral homes, or where a certain level of decorum is expected.
It’s about respect. It’s not about who is distracting whom.
The fact is, I find there is in schools, as in many workplaces, a tendency to think that beachwear or club wear is acceptable for a professional space. And school, like the office, is one of those places where we should have more respect, not less.
There’s research looking at productivity in businesses where casual wear is the norm versus when business wear is the standard. Contrary to popular belief, productivity increases when people dress for work as opposed to recreation.
I think the same holds true for schools. If you are dressed for the beach, how focused are you on learning math or science? It is one of the reasons I have long favoured uniforms in schools: identity, ease of readiness and a focus on school as a learning environment versus a fashion show.
But in the absence of a uniform, a dress code is what guides the work or school environment.
And when you have a dress code, you enforce it without bringing in extra baggage rooted in sexism.
Making sure your outerwear conceals your underwear while at school or work is not oppression; nor is it sexist, nor does it perpetuate rape culture. Dressing appropriately for the occasion and environment is about recognizing that respect for all — male, female and those in between — is fundamental, from clothes to words, from thoughts to action.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant
in St. John’s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.