Dress Codes

A reflection on recent events at Essex District High School

Social media is a powerful tool.  We’ve glimpsed its reach as millions took the ice bucket challenge and lamented this power as young people chocked over cinnamon and tide pods.  It has also been used to raise awareness about the struggles and challenges that exist, particularly when questions of fairness and justice arise.

Recently, young people at Essex District High School used social media to complain about the school’s dress code and its implementation.  In fact, the criticism is not new.  There are students around the world, usually females, who are frustrated by the ongoing prevalence of dress codes which they see as unfairly targeting them.

What is it?

Dress codes establish expectations about what is appropriate for students to wear in school.  The dress code for EDHS can be found here.  Certainly it is reasonable to expect all students to be sufficiently clothed in a manner that is respectable and safe.  As our understanding of gender, sexuality and consent continues to evolve, however, people are slowing awaking to the reality that, some of the expectations for females have been established based on the belief that how a female dresses can become distracting for males.  This awareness is compounded by a perception that females are more likely to be disciplined for dress code violations leading to complaints.

Why is this problematic?

Whether we agree or not with the particular complaint for this situation, the fact is these young women have a point as reflected in these comments from a local sexual assault crisis centre.   It is unfair to hold females responsible for the urges of males.  Males are free to dress as they choose, including going topless in the warmer months and wearing pants in such a way that their underwear is clearly visible.  While neither of these is considered appropriate for school, there are no expectations that males should refrain from such apparel in other contexts in order to avoid enticing females.

In contrast, there is a significant commentary on the extent to which women are viewed as dressing ‘provocatively’.  These perceptions have then played out in cases where women are sexually assaulted as suggesting that perhaps the woman was ‘asking for it’ or ‘advertising’ her sexuality.  Such discourse thus requires one gender to consider the impact of their dress on the other while the opposite is not true.

What can parents do?

As the discourse on gender, sexuality and consent continues to unfold, it is important to have conversations with our children regardless of gender.  All children should be taught that their sexual urges are their own responsibility.  All children should have tools to ensure that, if they get distracted, they can refocus their energy.  All children should understand the foundations of respect and consent in regards to bodies.

Conversation is important.  This includes a willingness to listen when issues are raised which call into question long standing social norms.  It will be interesting to see if this current situation will lead to a renewed understanding of the appropriate framework for the dress code at Essex District High School and beyond.

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