The real problem with school dress codes

(Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

(Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

Stories of absurd high school dress codes have made headlines several times this year. In each case I’ve come across, the centre of the controversy is a young girl and what she considers a harmless item of clothing.

Dress codes in schools are a contentious issue. When I was a teenager, I remember wondering to myself why some girls were trying so hard to fight with teachers over a short skirt or a pair of Lululemon tights.

As I grew older, I realized that they were fighting against something far less superficial and vain than I had thought.It wasn’t always that some rebellious jezebels wanted to roam the hallways in skimpy outfits that they knew they shouldn’t have been wearing. It wasn’t always about unnecessary disobedience or a vain desire to break the rules.

In many cases, it was the simple fact that these dress codes are unfairly targeted at female students. I remember that girls were taught to dress in a way that would not entice their male classmates. And it looks like things haven’t changed much since I was in high school four years ago.

Last month, the principal of a Michigan high school, Jim Bazen, wrote an editorial on this controversial subject. “By requiring female students to dress modestly, we are not penalizing them. We are protecting them! We do not want the girls to be considered ‘sex objects.’”

Bazen isn’t the only person who thinks like this. And it’s this kind of mentality that is extremely problematic. He also claims that men are more visual, and are “attracted to shape and skin.”

This sounds like a male problem to me, and definitely not something a young female in high school should have to suffer for. Let’s assume this gross generalization is true, and boys are in fact prone to uncontrollable bouts of feverish lust every time a girl walks by in a pair of yoga pants.

The idea that a girl should have to yield to accommodate this is absurd and inherently misogynistic. Most teenagers have sexual thoughts and desires. This is perfectly normal and healthy. But, this also comes with a duty to practise self-control and it is up to parents and the school system to ensure that students have respectful, consensual interactions. Sending a girl home from school for wearing yoga pants sends the message that, ultimately, her duty to not seduce the men around her outweighs her right to an education.

And it’s not just issues about particular clothing like leggings or yoga pants. A 16-year-old from Kentucky, Stephanie Hughes, was sent home from school in August for exposing her collarbone. Yes, her collarbone. Even after she tried to cover up with a scarf, Hughes was sent home because she allegedly wasn’t tying it properly.

Woodford County High School, where Hughes is a student, has become notorious for its strict dress code. Another student, Maggie Sunseri, made a short documentary about it earlier this year.

Sunseri interviewed her classmate, who talked about the time she and her boyfriend wore the same pair of soccer shorts to school. “Soccer shorts that come above the knee were completely fine for him,” said the unnamed student. “But I wore the exact same pair and they told me not to wear them.”

I do acknowledge that schools and all other professional institutions need to place certain standards or codes with regards to dressing. But these codes should at the very least, be based on some kind of standard of propriety, and not on some need to protect the guys from themselves.

That’s their job. Not ours.

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 18, 2015.

One Comment

  1. Brilliantly said Tayo! It is indeed a man problem and not one young girls need to bear. I find the experiment done with the soccer shirts very enlightening; is a female thigh anymore attractive than a man’s? The landscape of the world is changing so how does this relate to homosexuals? Do young boys now need to change their dress code to ‘protect’ themselves? I think this social experiment shows the system of school dress codes to be flawed and more of them need to be done to open people’s eyes to how ridiculous some of them are.

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