“Temptresses in tank tops”

I am the first to admit that my attitude about clothing for pretty much everyone other than infants and the youngest of children leans towards the modest. I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking a demure approach to how we clothe ourselves. I don’t expose much of my skin, regardless of the time of year or temperature of the room I am in and, if I am being honest, have to tell you that I can be uncomfortable around people who are not wearing clothes that cover most of their body. Call me a prude if you must, but you will never find me on a nude beach or even wandering around my own house naked. After all, what is wrong with a throat to wrist and ankle flannel nightgown?

That said, while I might, fully clothed and in the privacy of my home, rue the approach to fashion taken by many young women, I am also deeply offended by institutional attempts to control how they dress.

A couple of weeks ago, the administration of a Catholic high school in Midland, a small town in mid-northern Ontario decided that some of the girls were showing too much of their upper leg under their uniform kilts. (I am not unfamiliar with this issue, having attended a girls’ school in England for a year when I was a teenager. Every day as we began our walk to school, my friends and I rolled over the waistbands of our skirts to shorten them to what we were sure was a more becoming length, unrolling them when we arrived at school to avoid a trip to the principal’s office, and repeating the exercise at the end of the day as soon as we left school property. We seemed oblivious to the no-doubt negative fashion statement made by the rest of our uniform, which included the school tie, blazer and ever-so-stylish hat – as long as our skirts were short, we knew we looked sensational.)

In Midland, the male principal and female vice-principal felt the best way to address this “problem” was to come into the classroom, ask the girls to stand up while the boys were still in the room and then measure the distance between the bottom of the offending kilts and the girls’ knees. Happily for all of us, someone video recorded the proceedings, so we can hear the principal say: “You’re putting every male in this building in an awkward situation.” A number of the students noted that he also said “Legs are pretty.”

Apologies are not enough

While the principal and vice-principal, with a superintendent of education in tow, returned to the classroom two days later to apologize, that is just not enough.  This is 2018, almost 2019, and an adult male has no business measuring the legs of underage girls without their consent. As one of the female students said: “I felt uncomfortable. I felt very, very uncomfortable.”

The Director of Education for the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board remarked:

“Although some mistakes may have been made in this case, we also recognize the difficult job our principals and vice-principals have trying to balance student individuality in today’s society while at the same time enforcing dress code policies.”

But this misses the point, which is that time and again it is the way girls dress that is the focus of attention and discipline. While school officials insist that dress codes are gender neutral, it is girls who are targeted almost every time, whether for wearing crop tops (got to keep those tummies covered), spaghetti straps (hide those shoulders), short skirts or shorts (hide those thighs) or for not wearing a bra.

Too often, the commentary is about how it is the responsibility of girls to ensure that boys are not distracted — or worse — by what they wear. As Shauna Pomerantz, a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, said with respect to this most recent incident:

“What we see time and time again is girls being targeted as hypersexual for showing some part of their body. In my mind, there is a direct link between making girls feel that they are responsible for any negative attention and perpetuating rape culture and a blame-the-victim attitude. Disciplining girls in this way simply reinforces a dangerous double standard.”

As Elizabeth Renzetti, whose way with words is unsurpassed (just look at the phrase I used for my headline), penned:

“What positively supernatural powers an inch of teenage girl’s skin has. This inch, left uncovered, apparently has the ability to transform teen boys into werewolves.” She also notes that, given online porn, which young people can readily access anywhere, including at school, from their cell phones, “Bra straps are the least of our problems.”

Students speak up

Fortunately, students — especially female students — are not submitting silently to these dress codes. Young women across the province are speaking out, sometimes joined by young men, who take offence at the idea they need to be protected from the so-called temptations offered by girls who do not cover themselves from top to toe.

Sofie Eklund, a grade 12 student in Durham Region says this:

“[The codes] are sexist because the basis of these rules is that you shouldn’t be showing a certain amount of skin. When you think about why, the only justification that I can come up with is that [the schools] are saying that either our bodies are inappropriate or our bodies are sexual.”

Ms Eklund has raised this issue with the Durham District School Board, calling for an elimination of dress codes entirely or, alternatively, the creation of a board-wide policy that is less sexist and less biased.

As a result, the Board has established a committee of staff, trustees and students to examine the dress code at Eklund’s school and to make recommendations that will go to the Board-wide student senate for discussion and possible action.

If only Doug Ford had not banned the 2015 sex ed curriculum from Ontario schools. With it, students and teachers would be talking about consent, rape culture and responsibility. Without it, girls continue to be told that they (and their attire) are responsible for the ways boys behave.

Shame, shame on the Premier and big huzzahs to students like Sofie Eklund!

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