School Dress Codes Are Fashioned From a Sexist Narrative

By Amanda Lam

Ranging from banning spaghetti straps to measuring the distance between the bottom of a skirt to a girl’s kneecap, dress codes are being used to turn sexism into policy. For young girls in school, dress codes are a tool used by school administrators and other community members to police young women’s bodies.

Some young women and allies have taken a stand in solidarity to speak out against the discrimination they face or object to; discrimination that comes solely based on sex. One recent example of this erupted in a Toronto high school when student Alexi Halket was sent to the principal’s office over her “inappropriate” outfit. In response, Halket organized a day of protest, called ‘Crop Top Day,’ aimed at fighting against the sexualization of women’s bodies.

On this day Halket’s campus was crowded with hundreds of young women and allies supporting her, and approximately 25 other Toronto schools experienced a similar day of protest with students donning crop tops to spite dress codes. Many participants took this opportunity to exchange stories about their experience with discriminatory dress codes and school administrators’ enforcement of these rules and policies.

Dress codes are not exclusive to schools, but also extend into the workplace and public spaces. On June 20, an eight-year-old girl was asked to cover up at a wading pool in a Guelph public park based upon the city’s policy which mandates all girls over the age of four must wear bathing tops. In contrast, her brothers continued to play topless.

School administrators argue that the way some young women dress is “distracting,” as if young men cannot help but objectify young women and their allegedly scandalous clothing. This “distraction standard” is one of the key messages propagated to uphold dress codes.

However, within this narrative, the dress code constructs young men as the victim in the sense that a young woman’s clothing choice could prevent them from paying appropriate attention to school work.

What has been truly frightening to me is that the message this argument sends mirrors the myth that men cannot help but sexually assault women because of perceived sexy attire.

With this thinking, women are held responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them as they are simultaneously told they should be ashamed of their bodies. Men are exempt of responsibility for their behaviour while women are policed and held accountable for the actions of men around them.

Sexism woven into policies like dress codes is a problem in wider society. Rather than placing restrictions on children’s and teen’s clothing, schools and educators should encourage students to critically engage with society, focus on their school work, and to be safe while they express themselves. Deconstructing and removing unreasonable and sexist dress codes is a step in the right direction.

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