Schools often have rules in place for student attire and many include strict directions that ban leggings, tank tops, and even the exposure of shoulders. Why, you ask? The argument is revealing clothing can distract other students (read: boys) from their studies. So instead of teaching our children how to be respectful and maintain focus, we cover girls up and make it their problem. By stigmatizing young women who violate traditional expectations of ‘proper’ behaviour, schools are essentially slut-shaming anyone who breaks the rules.

Just last month 19-year-old Andy Villanueva protested the Toronto District School Board’s dress codes at a subway station.

“The implementation of dress codes is oppressive – sexist, racist and transphobic,” she told The Star. “Teachers shouldn’t be telling students ‘You should be embarrassed,’ and ‘What kind of attention are you trying to get?’” The worst part is teachers actually think they are protecting young girls by saying these things.”

Villanueva campaigned to have her school, Central Technical School, change their dress code and last year she succeeded. English and drama teacher Geoff Kavanagh told The Star that students generally dressed the same, but he noticed “conversations about equity and bodies a lot…Students would say ‘It’s inappropriate for you to be talking about me in that way to other boys and girls.’”

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Villanueva has since started a petition called #endthedresscode to do away with dress codes entirely in Toronto schools.

Another Canadian school was in the headlines this week. Several students were sent home from Ottawa’s All Saints Catholic High School for wearing ripped jeans. Sound familiar? In September the school was in the news for sending home grade 11 student Madi Carty for the same reason. According to Carty the only explanation she got was “you wouldn’t be dressed like that for a job interview.”

The official dress code doesn’t mention ripped jeans, but does ban “short shorts and skirts,” “low-cut tops,” “pajama bottoms,” “clothing with vulgar, suggestive, inappropriate language or drug/alcohol messages,” “midriff revealing, racer back and/or backless tops,” “clothing that permits exposure of the naval or undergarments,” and “spaghetti strap tops.” Again, there is a disproportional focus on girls’ clothing.

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This isn’t just a problem here in Canada. Stacie Dunn, a mom from Kentucky, made international headlines when she shared a photo of her daughter, Stephanie, wearing jeans, a shirt, and a long sleeved sweater that were deemed inappropriate by the Woodford County High School because the shirt revealed her clavicle. She covered up with a scarf, but was later sent home after ‘giving the principal an attitude’ when he told her it still wasn’t up to code.

These dress codes teach young women that they are responsible for men’s actions. By saying female students need to cover up in order to not distract male students, they are saying that it is the woman’s fault for the man’s inability to look straight ahead at the chalk board. As Jessica Valenti pointed out in The Guardian, this kind of discrimination could be a violation of Title IX, a U.S. federal law that ensures non-discrimination in educational environments.

“If women are missing out on opportunities to learn [by being pulled out of class], that looks like a violation to me,” Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of Know Your IX, told Valenti.

This kind of thing has been happening for decades.  I remember being in the last week of grade eight when my friend, guest writer at TheFeminismProject.com Alana Fitzpatrick, was sent to the office for wearing a tank top. It was a Monday, and the night before she had gone to Vancouver with her dad. Living in Victoria, they had to take the ferry back to Vancouver Island and missed the last one of the evening. They hadn’t planned to stay the night, so after catching the first ferry back in the morning her dad took her straight to school in the same outfit she was wearing the day before –  matching denim jeans and jean jacket, and a tank top. So early 2000s.

tumblr_nto5vsDQpT1u1tibko2_1280Knowing the tank top was against the rules, Alana kept the jean jacket on in the sweltering heat. That is until she had a class in a room that had floor to ceiling windows – the sun was beating in and she couldn’t stand it anymore. Within five minutes, the particularly nasty vice principal walked past the doorway and as Alana says, punched an accusatory finger in her direction, and ordered her out of the classroom with a silent thumb jab over her shoulder.

“I thought you were a good girl,” the vice principal told her before calling her parents.

The vice principal told her dad the outfit was inappropriate, and being the awesome man that he is, he told her not to be ridiculous. Regardless, Alana had to keep the jacket on for the rest of the day. This was 14 years ago, and schools haven’t improved much since.

A 13-year-old girl having to take responsibility for her peers’ perception of her brings up a slew of important questions: is it therefore also a woman’s fault if she gets harassed at work for wearing a tight dress? Or raped for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothing?

We should be teaching male classmates to be respectful instead of putting the responsibility on the female students. As co-editor-in-chief Chloe Tse points out, if girls who like girls can control themselves, the boys can figure it out too.

 

Image credit: Change.org, Facebook, Tumblr/heartbreakgirl217