School dress codes 'demeaning' to both sexes

Schools tend to heavily restrict girls clothing to prevent distracting their male counterparts. That misguided solution can send the wrong message to both genders, some researchers say.

More girls are standing up against dress codes they say discriminate against their gender

School dress code sexist?

9 years ago
Duration 1:55
Moncton teenager takies stand against 'unjust standards' after she received a detention for breaking her high school's dress code and then a one-day suspension for protesting it

Spaghetti straps. Ultra-short skirts. Excessive cleavage. Midriff-baring tops. Shorts with a hem shorter than where a person's fingertips graze when they are standing. 

School dress codes across Canada prohibit all young people from wearing a wide range of potentially inappropriate clothes. But lately more girls are crying foul at rules they say unfairly target their wardrobes.

This week, 17-year-old Lauren Wiggins took a stand against "unjust standards" after receiving a detention for wearing a full-length halter dress that she says school officials considered "inappropriate" and a "sexual distraction." 

Over the years, many schools have tended to restrict girls clothing to prevent distracting their male counterparts. But that misguided solution sends the wrong message to both genders, social researchers say, painting girls as shameful seductresses that must be contained and boys as aggressors unable to control their primal urges.

"It's demeaning to girls because it teaches them that their bodies are contaminated, distracting and evil," says Shauna Pomerantz, a Brock University child and youth studies associate professor and author of Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part.

"It's demeaning to boys because it teaches them that they don't know how to take responsibility for their actions."

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Girls' clothing dictates morality

Society has often used girls' fashion as a gauge for morality and to maintain social norms, says Pomerantz.

A group of students at a Newfoundland and Labrador school put up these posters to protest what they say is the school's sexist new dress code. School staff quickly took down the posters. (Submitted photo)

Schools want to churn out good citizens, so young women are expected to be nice, clean and polite. In other words, girls that look like quintessential good girl Taylor Swift and not the more sexually provocative Miley Cyrus.

Pomerantz recalls how her mother, who attended school in the 1950s in Peterborough, Ont., wore jeans on one particularly cold day. She feared getting in trouble because girls weren't allowed to wear pants to classes yet.

People get nervous when girls' style shifts, she says, pegging the advent of the school dress code debate to around the rise of the Spice Girls and a subsequent wave of pop stars like Britney Spears. That early 2000s era of hyper-sexualized celebrity prompted marketers to gear low-rise jeans and crop tops to tweens.

People took this as a sign that society was veering in the wrong direction, says Pomerantz.

"When schools crack down on girls' dress, I think they're doing this out of fear and out of a sense of control," says Pomerantz. "If we can control girls, then we can control sexual behaviour."

'Unbelievably negative' message for boys

School dress codes have existed for as long as schools have, says Gregg Ingersoll, the superintendent of Anglophone East School District, which encompasses Wiggins's Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, N.B.

"Most dress codes are just designed to try to keep the focus on the learning and not the focus on someone's body that may or may not be showing, or their undergarments or other things," says Ingersoll.

It's distracting to any gender when students see someone wearing something unexpected in school, he says, like pants hanging below a boy's buttocks.

Makayla King, a Nova Scotian teen, faced suspension when school administrators felt her shorts were inappropriate. (Courtesy: Julia Davison)

In N.B., each school in a district sets its own standards for its students, Ingersoll says. The rules at Wiggins's school, for example, prohibit pajamas, pants with frayed cuffs, and visible undergarments.

Harrison Trimble High School dedicates a section of the code to "excessively revealing" clothing, which includes shirts that expose shoulders, backs and midriffs.

Schools' codes of conduct often target girls' clothing and bodies in ways they don't address those of boys, says Rebecca Raby, the chair of Brock University's child and youth studies program. They refer to skirt lengths and cleavage exposure.

Raby has been researching school dress codes for almost a decade and has found they perpetuate the assumption that boys are active sexual beings who look at desirable girls, while girls are only passive objects of their affection.

Rarely are boys sent home for wearing tight muscle shirts and distracting girls, she says.

It's a "very narrow and somewhat insulting" mould to fit young men into, she says, and it places the blame for unwanted attention on young women who often dress for reasons other than impressing the opposite sex.

"The message is unbelievably negative," says Pomerantz. "Boys are aggressive. Boys are out of control. Boys don't know how to think. Boys are disrespectful."

Constantly asking girls to cover up creates a society where young boys don't know how to treat girls, says Pomerantz. The more people project that image on them, the more they adopt it.

"Boys are never being asked to think about how they look at, judge and demean girls."

'Nothing will change' without education

While neither Pomerantz nor Raby argue that dress codes should be eliminated, both say schools ought to include students in ongoing discussions about clothing rules.

Ingersoll says all schools in his district should have consulted students and parents when creating their dress codes, which are regularly reviewed. Parents and students can always lodge a formal re-evaluation as well.

Pomerantz also suggests that school curriculums should cover discussions around respect, sexual harassment and rape. While Raby lauds Ontario's controversial incoming sex education curriculum for introducing the concept of consent and what's appropriate in relationships to both genders.

"Girls are held responsible for anything bad that might happen to them because they were wearing ... spaghetti straps or short shorts or showing their cleavage or showing their tummies," says Pomerantz. "If you don't talk to boys about how to respect girls' bodies, absolutely nothing will change."