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School Dress Codes Focused on Uniformity and ‘Modesty’ Contribute to the Hyper-Sexualization of Girls and Women | Op-Ed

Do you remember the first time you were told what to wear?

I’m not talking about being told to dress more practically, or having to wear certain things at certain times for particular occasions.

I’m talking about being told to cover up and wear your clothes in a more ‘modest’ way.

For me, and many other girls and women, this has happened directly and indirectly our entire lives.

One major culprit has been school dress codes.

  • The first time I was ‘dress-coded’ was in kindergarten, age 5.
  • I had on a beautiful lime green spaghetti strap top with bright pink lily flowers on the front. The straps tied into bows across my shoulders. When I got to school on that hot day, I was asked to change.
  • At the time, it wasn’t a big deal to me, my mom always packed me an extra T-shirt anyways.

After this incident, though, my mother was particularly furious. What could possibly be wrong with a 5-year-old wearing a tank top?

Well, apparently, it broke the dress code at my elementary school.

The Big Picture

From elementary school to high school, girls and women have to comply with dress code policies that force us to cover up and make ourselves more ‘presentable’.

The problem is that we are not told to do this for our own benefit, but rather so that men and boys can be made more ‘comfortable’.

I attended an all-girls private high school in Montreal for five years, during which I observed school administrators fervently enforcing strict uniform policies that focused too much on ensuring ‘modesty’.

  • Skirts had to be no more than 10 cm above the knee, socks expected to be pulled up to the knee, cuffs unrolled, skirts unrolled, pin in our kilt to keep it together.

It was only until after I graduated that I realized how problematic some of these rules were, and how they hyper sexualized girls and women’s bodies.

The continued effort of schools to make young girls and women ‘cover up’ completely goes against what should be their fundamental priority: To teach us that we are more than just bodies and are rather independent thinkers who can achieve anything.

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A Movement to Stop the Hyper-Sexualization of Girls and Women

This past month, there have been numerous protests in co-ed private schools across Quebec. Boys wore skirts to school to protest sexism and gender-based discrimination against women and girls.

Colin Renaud, 15, a student at Villa Maria, a private high school in Montreal, was one of the first boys to wear a skirt to school. He said he wanted to protest sexist dress codes while also fighting against the hyper sexualization of womens’ bodies.

  • At Villa Maria, girls have to wear their skirts with high stockings or tights, something which has been the subject of debate, and a driving force behind Renaud’s protest. He posted a message and photo of his protest on Instagram, which garnered him over 30,000 likes.

“Long stockings are still mandatory at school because ‘you can see too much leg’ or because ‘the calves will distract the boys’. Really degrading as a comment from adults who are supposed to be open-minded and open the door to us for tomorrow’s world,” wrote Renaud on Instagram.

This movement, carrying the message that schools need to stop the hyper-sexualization of girls and women through dress codes, has spread over social media and encouraged boys from Collège Nouvelles Frontières, College Laval,  Lucille-Teasdale International School and College Charles-Lemoyne to join in on the protest and wear girls’ skirts to school.

History of School Dress Codes

School dress codes originated in England in English private schools and became common in public schools once dress became a means of individual expression. The uniforms aimed at removing the apparent inequities and comparisons among students.  

  • Dress codes have historically reinforced gendered stereotypes and disproportionately targeted women more so than men.
  • While uniforms were created to solve a problem, it soon created others.

Education policy makers created dress policies and codes to indoctrinate their values upon an increasingly diverse population of students.

There was a time when this was considered necessary, but no more.

In the past few decades there have been a number of court cases relating to school uniforms and dress codes, notably how they limit freedom of speech, religious expression and sometimes disadvantage students financially.

In many cases, it’s not about the uniform itself. Rather, it’s about the meticulous and critical requirements that come along with it.

Defiance is Born out of Regulation

There was a point in time at my school when certain teachers would threaten students with what they called the ‘skirt of doom’. This skirt, dropped way below the knee, was easily four sizes too big for the students and was unhemmed. They threatened this skirt to girls who rolled their skirts too high. So essentially, the solution for nonconformity was to shame the violator.

  • Unfortunately, for my school’s administrators, most of the students were not compliant. Rather, the push back girls received from administrators made them even more likely to be defiant. 

Historically, teenagers, and especially young women, don’t like to be told what to do. When told their skirt should be worn long, they wear it short.

Another hidden factor is financial consideration.

  • A lot of people assume all girls who go to private schools are all financially well-off.
  • In reality, a number of the students are on bursaries and financial assistance to cover tuition. I knew multiple girls whose parents would only be able to buy them a uniform once or twice in their five years at school.
  • They would either buy their clothes way too big, and have to roll the skirts, or they would keep adjusting the button on their very small skirt from 7th grade so it would fit around their waist, but be a bit short, and fall at their upper thigh.

Why is it our mission to make men more ‘comfortable’?

At my school, as with many private schools, sometimes we had “free dress days”; essentially, a very exciting day where girls had to pay two dollars in exchange for dressing how they wanted out of uniform.  But don’t be fooled, there were of course rules.

  • One policy, that may seem very small and insignificant to some, was that we were not allowed to wear leggings. The pants most popular among teenage girls were outlawed. If worn, you could risk getting a warning or detention for doing so.

While my school often cited that leggings were not appropriate simply because they looked juvenile and sloppy, many of the girls knew why they didn’t let us wear them.

Sometimes the students would be able to catch teachers off-guard and get the real honest answers to why we were not allowed to wear leggings. Some mentioned that we have male teachers and we don’t want to make them uncomfortable since leggings draw too much attention to our rear end. I remember a lot of us kind of laughed that one off; assuming no male teachers would ever look at us that way.

Today, I realize how problematic this was. It assumed that we, teenage girls, are responsible for how others look at us.

  • Dress codes prioritize the opinions boys and men and assume age-old stereotypes: Women are ‘temptresses’ and are ‘asking for attention’ if they wear their clothes a certain way, and boys will always be tempted.

The reality is that if a 15-year-old girl wears her skirt short, her socks rolled down to her ankles and her sleeves rolled up, she is absolutely not doing so for male attention.

On the other hand, it’s sexist to assume all men and boys will be distracted and seduced by girls and women, as if they have no choice but to impose their male gaze upon us.

The problem is not with the girl, and oftentimes not even with the boy, but with school administrators that consider the girl to ultimately be responsible for society’s overall hyper sexualization of women’s bodies.

The Bottom line: It’s the dress code’s turn to change

These issues effect many schools across Canada, both private and public, whose administrators not only continue to impose sexist dress codes and rules which target girls specifically, but also inhibit ways in which uniforms can be updated and worn to allow for self-expression.

While there may have been a time and a place when enforcing strict uniform policies in both public and private schools was an accepted practice, I think our generation sees the need for an alternate way of thinking.

Schools should not take these protests and critical perspectives on dress codes and administration policy as a direct insult to administrators or teachers’ personal character. Rather, this is an opportunity for schools to update archaic practices that run counter to today’s core values. 

I believe students, past and present, are asking for administrators and schools to look critically at their mission. Does imposing meticulous dress code rules on girls and women help further their goals for students in 2020?