Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Is It Time to Address School Dress Codes?

Once upon a time, in a country not far away at all, the sight of a woman's ankle was considered both shocking and provocative. It seems a woman's ankle, when displayed openly to the world, was feared to be tremendously distracting to men and those men, completely unable to control their carnal appetites, could not really be blamed if they were so overwhelmed by the sight of an ankle that they were unable to continue to function as respectable men do. And so women, in deference to this, acknowledged weakness on the part of men, kept their ankles covered - and the rest of their bodies, too, hidden behind long skirts and shirts with arms that went down to the wrist and collars that buttoned under the chin. It was necessary, you see, to keep civilization going by covering up so that women did not show any skin and inadvertently distract men from the busy business of being, you know, a man.

And then, over the course of a few decades, we woke up and realized what utter bullshit this was. We began to realize that men, far from being some weak gender who lived only on their instinct and impulse, could see an ankle without swooning. We began to realize that women didn't need to cover  every inch of flesh to protect men from themselves, and could instead expect men to behave in a civilized manner regardless of how much skin a woman showed, because in civilization we expect other people to behave in certain ways. We stopped assuming that showing a hint of female skin would lead to the downfall of the world as men would be so distracted they would stop doing things like running governments and businesses (and oh yeah, we realized women could - and should - be running those too, and we started electing them and they began to do things like become CEOs). So the question that begs to be asked is if we woke up to this some time ago why do we still have dress codes in schools that treat young women - and I mean elementary school girls - as temptresses who might wear spaghetti straps and throw young men off their game by showing them a hint of shoulder?

I am the parent of a young woman. She is almost 16 now, and we have discussed the subject of dress codes pretty extensively. Now, her fashion happens to run more towards vintage dresses from the 50's and things like crinolines, but the discussion we have often had centres on why these dress codes we often see in schools specifically refer to how young women are allowed to dress but say little about their male counterparts.

The standard for most of these dress codes is no spaghetti strap shirts or dresses, no shorts or skirts shorter than fingertip length when your hands are at your side, no midriff-baring tops, no cleavage - all aimed at preventing young women from showing the modern equivalent of an ankle as it seems shoulders are quite distracting to young men.

It all flared up again in our country when a young woman went to school in a spaghetti-strap maxi-dress and was called on the carpet for breaking the dress code. There were those who said she should be as if rules exist you need to follow them - but the reality is rules need to be revisited and revised on a regular basis as the world often changes far faster than the rules do. Those dress codes in place in schools are the very same ones I saw in my educational life - and I graduated decades ago. The world has changed, and I believe it is time we revisit the subject of dress codes and exactly what these codes are saying to young men and young women.

Here is what I think they say to young women:

Your body is a tempting thing. Your skin should be kept covered to avoid distracting young men who cannot control themselves and their impulses. If you show skin you should expect that young men will react to you in ways that you do not want but that you have invited because you have showed your skin. You are to blame if you are treated this way because you showed too much skin. We created these rules to protect you from young men because young men cannot be trusted to behave properly.

Here is what I think they say to young men:

Women are temptresses who should not show this much skin. We don't expect you to control your impulses or your behaviour because we do not think you can. We do not trust you to behave in a civil manner if you see the skin of a young woman and should they show you this skin we know you will behave badly. We created these rules to protect you from yourself, because we know you are unable to control yourself.

Sound familiar? It is the type of thought process that leads to victim blaming in sexual assault cases, where the woman is to blame because she dressed provocatively and the hapless male could not control himself because he was so overwhelmed by his impulses. And if we don't buy it in a court of law why are we buying it in our schools?

Shouldn't we be teaching our young women and young men that proper conduct is based NOT on how someone else is dressed but on the standards that dictate how we behave in a civilized society? Shouldn't we be showing them that we are all - every person of every gender - more than our body parts and that how we dress our body parts has nothing to do with how we are expected to treat each other? Shouldn't we be avoiding sexualizing children in elementary school by implying that their wearing spaghetti strap sundresses is in some way provocative behaviour? Shouldn't we be treating our young men with respect and acknowledging that not only can they control themselves but we expect them to, and shouldn't we be showing our young women that how they dress should not dictate how they should expect to be treated? Or are we actually trying to educate our children that men are animals with no self-control and that women are far too provocative and tempting?

Are you a parent? Ask your school if they have a dress code in place. And if the dress code seems outdated or unreasonable to you ask if it can be revisited, and ask your kids what they think of the dress code, as they have great input on the messages these dress codes send to them. And if you are inclined to think the dress codes are a-ok as they are, just remember there was time when the sight of an ankle was considered quite shocking and provocative, and ask yourself if the world is the same as when you were in school. Ask yourself what message we want our young adults - both male and female - to receive from us on this topic, and act accordingly.

This song was running through my head when I was contemplating this blog, reflecting on a time when a "glimpse of stocking was something shocking". It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, as it complains that "anything goes", in the way that those who abhor change often deride the changes they see in the world. The world has changed - and it is continuing to change. In my opinion it is time for things like school dress codes to change and better reflect our youth of today and not the youthful years of their parents. I don't believe that "anything goes" - but I do believe that as a society we need to stop often, ask why we are doing things and reflect on if this is the right path for the future. And school dress codes that fundamentally teach our youth the exact lessons we don't want them to learn? It is time for them to simply go.


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