“I’m sorry, but your [insert exposed body part here] is a sexual distraction.”
Sound familiar? It’s probably because that line is becoming an all-too-common justification for suspending girls from school when they wear clothes administrators deem to be too revealing. In fact, New Brunswick teen Lauren Wiggins was recently put into detention by her school’s principal after he found her full-length halter dress to be “inappropriate” as well as a “sexual distraction.”
Over the years, many schools across Canada have adopted similar rules. Because, of course, no parent wants to see kids showing up to school wearing bikinis or boxer shorts. But is telling women to cover up really the right way to go to create a respectful environment that fosters equality?
One expert says no. Shauna Pomerantz, who is a child and youth studies associate professor at Brock University and an author of Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part, says these kinds of dress codes can be damaging because they paint women as shameful seductresses with harmful bodies that must be covered, while boys are essentially portrayed as “aggressive,” “violent,” and unable to control their urges.
“Girls are the ones being held morally responsible for the conduct of boys,” she said, adding that dress codes are “way more important than people give them credit for.”
She referred to dress codes like the ones at Wiggins’ school as a “band-aid solution” to a much larger social problem, where boys can get away with blaming actions on “hormones” while girls are put in the awkward position of being “gatekeepers of morality.” In other words, women need to keep those hormone-crazy men in check by covering themselves up, or they risk being sexually assaulted by people who can’t control themselves.
Heck of a lesson, amirite?
Of course, there is another side to this. Many parents likely fear that if their kids leave home wearing too little clothing, they could become targets for sex offenders or criminals. Of course, it’s also important for kids to learn what kind of attire is deemed appropriate in certain environments. But Pomerantz isn’t advocating the lessening of dress code restrictions; her argument is more about the different ways opposing genders are treated under these rules.
“We need to stop blaming girls for being leered at, harassed and abused,” she said. “It’s not allowed under our law, so why is it OK in the school system?”
Her solution? Get young people involved in the conversation around dress codes, whether they’re boys or girls. Teach lessons of respect, consent and sexuality early in children’s lives. She said the updated Ontario sex-ed curriculum comes close to addressing some of these factors, but there is still room for improvement.
“Nothing will change unless boys are asked to examine their behaviour,” she said.
Do you agree that dress codes are bad for both men and women? Let us know in the comments below!