The pressure to have the perfect baby: are we all a bunch of amateur eugenicists, or are we just into mother-blaming?

I consider myself pretty lucky. I have two amazing kids who have so far managed to reach adolescence without being eaten. They’re total weirdos, and do many things in ways most people around them don’t. And that’s okay. I know, though, that there are many people in the world, and maybe even in my life, who would not want my kids, because they’re not perfect.

When my oldest was first going through the diagnostic process to determine whether he was autistic, I had many … well-meaning (?) people send me links to studies on what might have caused it. Did I drink during my pregnancy? Too much access to ultrasound? Epidural? Did I eat something “wrong” when I was pregnant? Did I take medication? What did I do to make my kid less perfect than he should be? The questioning picked up again when my second child was diagnosed. I MUST HAVE done something.

The answer is, I did nothing but exist. My kids are likely autistic because I am. I have an explanation, and it’s one that works for us, but not everyone does. Parents who have children with Down Syndrome are told they waited too long, that they are at fault for their babies’ imperfection. Many are pressured to terminate pregnancies when their viable fetuses don’t fit what we’ve decided is the ideal.* Most pregnant people are policed about everything they do, and blamed when their babies don’t come out as expected. Eat lots of fish? Well, the mercury will make your kid stupid. An occasional glass of wine? Yep, your kid’s going to be a criminal with no sense of remorse.

And Gd help you if you don’t breastfeed, because WE ALL KNOW that babies fed artificial baby milk have lower IQs.

So, here’s my question: why do we care so much about the cult of the high IQ? Is being a genius a guarantee that our kids will grow up into “successful” adults? Do conventionally smart people have an easier time in the world? Probably. But not because they’re smart. It’s because the world is set up to privilege certain kinds of strengths over others. Able-bodied people are privileged over those considered disabled. They’re valued more, even as infants.

In our world, where “stupid” is still an acceptable insult, we daily reinforce that being smart is better. And if smart is better, and we have the power to prevent not-smart people from being, then it stands to reason that those who create new people would be pressured to follow very narrow behavioural rules in order to ensure they have the smartest kids possible. We have invested so much time, energy, and funding into policing pregnancy that we “don’t have the resources” to create and maintain space for those who don’t fit our norm.

I’d love to see a moratorium on campaigns designed to scare pregnant people into compliance. I’d love to see people use the words “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron” less and less. I’d love to see more people embrace the strengths of the “imperfect” people in their lives. I’d love people to stop glorifying IQ, making it seem so much more important than it actually is.

* Because this needs to be said: for whatever reason you choose – of your own non-coerced will – to terminate a pregnancy, I will support you 100%.

This is not a think piece

So…
Yeah.

As many of you know, I’m pretty much always at work, trying to figure out just how to incorporate concepts of consent into the world.

I parent my kids through that lens.
I incorporate as much as I can into my teaching – a challenge, as my position of substitute teacher doesn’t lend itself well to the relationship-building required to make these conversations meaningful.
I just started a PhD a couple of months ago, with research interests in how the school is a site which perpetuates rape culture, and how consent-encouraging practices can be effectively used in classrooms.
I speak about consent at conferences when I can.
I curate a Facebook page, posting links to resources and offering lesson plan ideas (sometimes broad, sometimes extremely specific) that correspond with Ontario curriculum expectations.

I’m pretty well-known in some circles as someone who does this work, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised when people turn to me for my opinion on this rape case, or that think piece on reporting.

Here’s the thing, though:

On top of all of those things I listed above, I’m a survivor of sexual violence myself. And while I willingly participate in all of the above, I make choices about how much of myself I can invest in any given moment. I can set up therapy and massage appointments to correspond with times when I know I’ll be focusing more than usual on rape culture. I can mediate the triggering harm this causes me (and it does cause me harm) by having some control over how it enters my consciousness at any given moment.

I understand why people have come to me, asking, “You must have SO MUCH to say about (insert name of person who doesn’t need me to continue naming him), and the denials, shaming women for not reporting, the lack of belief.”

I do have lots to say, and, when I feel okay about it (and sometimes when I need to get it out of me), I’ve shared this and that. But that’s again something within my control. Walking into meetings and being asked what I think, having this happen over and over throughout the last week-and-a-half both in person and online, has been exhausting. It’s made it much harder for me to stay on track with parenting, school, and work. It’s made it much harder to stay on top of my physical health, as my sleep is disrupted. My mood is… complicated.

This kinda sucks, and I’m not the only person experiencing this. Not everyone has the self-care resources I’ve developed to keep me well. There are so many women (and, yes, men too) who have been in a constant state of alert since the story broke. The internet can be a dangerous place at the best of times, but it’s also a social lifeline for many. We expose ourselves repeatedly, torn between not being able to resist reading as the train wreck gets bigger, and the social isolation that would arise from enforcing a self-ban.

I’m not going to tell you what to say or write. We all have to get this shit out of us somehow. What I am asking is that you consider the impact of how you seek information or opinion.

Post an article? Okay. I can choose to not read it.

Ask me a direct question and expect me to respond? Right now? That’s a lot. Too much, maybe. I’m going to (gently) suggest that you model consent when you talk to people.

“I would like to talk to you about X, because I’m curious about what you think. Is right now a good time, or can we talk about it at another time?” I would welcome this approach.

Please note: if you’re a survivor and you’re struggling and you just need to talk to someone else who might get it, that’s different. I’ll find the spoons for that.

If you just want to have a conversation, though? Proceed with caution and care.

Musings on Music and Ableism (Inspired by Kanye West)

There are several adjectives which come to mind when the topic of the hour is Kanye West, and this week, media reports have added a new one: ableist. During a concert in Melbourne, Australia on Friday, West refused to perform until everyone in the stadium stood. He reportedly went as far as to check ID to verify that those not standing were actually disabled. Now, there are many things wrong with this situation.

1) It’s none of his business why a given person chooses to not stand during his concert. If someone has paid for A SEAT, they have the right to sit in it.

2) Not everyone who has a disabling medical condition is considered “disabled” on paper, and wouldn’t have “proof” to show anyone. My chronic pain means that sometimes I’m exhausted and just can’t stand for long periods of time. Do I have documentation saying I benefit from sitting to regain some energy? Nope. And neither do many others.

3) It is obscenely invasive to assume that people need to prove anything to attend a music performance.

The thing is, though, that even though this latest demonstration of insensitivity is pretty awful (and it really is, no question), we’re absolutely fooling ourselves if we believe Kanye West is the first and last (or even the worst) example of ableism in live shows.

I mean, for the audience member who uses a wheelchair to enter the Qantas Credit Union Arena at all implies that it’s at least wheelchair accessible in the first place. How many performers or their promoters book gigs in spaces that aren’t accessible at all to people in chairs? How many small-scale music venues can we name, without even thinking about it, which are basement or second-floor establishments, with no elevator? Even if a space has ground-floor access, where are the washrooms located? Are we telling physically disabled/chronically ill people that only those who can make it into these spaces, only people who never have to pee, have the privilege of enjoying live music?

Yeah, we totally are.

Every time someone opens a new club and doesn’t insist on ground-floor washrooms and a slight ramp to get over the lip at the door, they’re telling disabled people that they’re not welcome.

I get it. Space is at a premium, and there are many factors that go into renting venues for long-term occupancy and for one-off events. Sometimes, in older buildings, increasing accessibility is cost-prohibitive. It can cause serious hardship for event promoters who are doing their best to provide what they can for as low a cost as they can offer. But it’s still a problem, no matter the justification.

Kanye West was 100% in the wrong. But before you jump on the accusatory bandwagon, take a minute to think about who else is doing exactly the same sort of thing. Then ask if you’ve thought to call them out as loudly as you do West.

The importance of shutting up when white

I’m going to try to keep this short.

Last night, after reading through my Twitter timeline and seeing one more white woman using her feminism to silence, ridicule, and harass Black women, I posted the following:

White people, sometimes (and a lot more often than we’re willing to admit), we need to just shut the fuck up. Seriously. Just stop.

I was asked to elaborate on what I meant by this statement, and agreed to come back to it this morning. So, here I am, trying to figure out how to address this without additionally co-opting space which isn’t mine to inhabit.

Here’s the thing. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re even conscious of it, as white people, we take up a lot of space in the world. I’ll go even further to say that we take up as much space in the world as we can get our hands on, and sometimes still don’t feel like it’s enough. Our narratives are the default, prescriptive, the “right” way to do things. This is individual, and it’s systemic.

I’m trying to be careful to recognize the space I take up, to listen more than I speak. I’m not perfect at it, and I appreciate when others take time to call me out (though I also don’t expect other people to actively teach me to to be a more thoughtful considerate person – nobody owes me their knowledge). I also feel some responsibility in addressing the space we collectively take up, because this isn’t just about me, or any other one white person. It’s about how 2/3 of the students in my school district are children of colour, and 2/3 of their teachers are white. It’s about how family structure and kinship care doesn’t always reflect the standards reinforced by white-dominated structures (even when those families who deviate from the accepted norm may also be white). It’s about how while this isn’t the Oppression Olympics, the impact of settler colonialism and trans-Atlantic enslavement do mean that our world (and our people) continue to assume that some people are more human than others.

When I say that white people need to stop talking, need to shut up and listen, I do mean all of us. And I hope that when other white people read me saying it, they understand that this isn’t about individual people and their individual acts and behaviours. This is about acknowledging that no matter what our conscious understanding, no matter how we frame ourselves as accepting, anti-racist people, we have systemic skin-colour advantage that validates our stories over all others. EVEN when we’re women. EVEN when we’re poor. EVEN when we’re queer, or trans, or disabled, or all of the above. ALL of us need to shut the fuck up and listen. I stand by that statement, and this sadly won’t be the last time I’ll find the need to say it.

This is already a lot longer than I’d hoped it would be. I hope it provides some clarity.

Dress code talk has gotten too close to home

I was out with my 12-year-old yesterday afternoon when I realized I hadn’t talked with her about how a school council conversation about dress code had gone. She attends a small public downtown K-6 school housed in a larger K-8, and the school itself is still quite new (5 years). Before a letter was sent home with her a little over a week ago, the only conversation parents had ever had about clothes was to express a preference for no logos, when possible. The letter my child brought home (and only Grade 6 students at the school were given this letter) listed a much broader range of rules that have never been on our radar before this: No underwear showing, tank top straps must be two fingers wide, shorts must pass the “fingertip” test, and nothing disrespectful, hateful, or connected to drugs/alcohol/smoking. The note took care to avoid gendered language, including a “What Not To Wear” illustration that showed contraband gear for girls and boys.

(I should mention, incidentally, that my 13-year-old attends the larger K-8 school, though I’ve been sadly not as connected to the community as I have been with the smaller school. Before this letter came home, a permission form for Grade 8 graduation was distributed, detailing that “age appropriate” and “modest” clothing choices were expected: “no strapless dresses.”)

Anyway, the 12-year-old said that her Grade 5-6 classmates discussed the note in class, and realized that every single child in the class was breaking the stated dress code in one way or another. I asked what she thought of the code, and her first reaction was, “It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s like the people who came up with these rules have never been shopping before. Don’t they get that it’s really hard to find shorts that are longer than soccer shorts but shorter than capris?” Also, as a child with very narrow shoulders, she finds herself regularly breaking the rule of “no visible underwear,” as even if her sleeveless shirts are acceptable, her bra straps often show. 

When she came home with this letter, I had already been researching dress code policy from school board and provincial levels for a friend whose Grade 4 daughter (yep, grade 4) came home one day a few weeks ago after being told her top and shorts were unacceptable. In my research, I discovered that Ontario’s Ministry of Education states that it is the majority of parents in a given school who decide the dress code, not a given school’s administration. Now, there are more specific policies, like the Toronto District School Board’s, which outline that anything depicting gang affiliation, violence, and oppression are unacceptable, but the TDSB has a section D (“Add any other types of Inappropriate Dress”), which is the part parents decide. 

In theory, parents could choose to leave section D entirely blank. There’s nothing in the TDSB policy that states that a dress code must include anything other than sections A through C. This document also clearly states that students must be surveyed for their opinions and understanding of the function of any proposed dress code before it is passed.

With this understanding of policy in mind, I asked for dress codes to be discussed at the last school council meeting of the year. During this meeting, I learned that the letter my daughter and son were sent home with was distributed to all students in Grades 6-8, but that the younger students were supposed to pay the most attention to the section of the letter that dealt with scooter and bike safety. The dress code “reminder” was specifically because there have been a few Grade 8 “students” who were taking risks with their attire: bandeau bras, side boob, exposed bellies, extra short shorts.

“Students,” eh?

The explanation continued: several male teachers felt there was a risk of liability in suggesting that “students” were dressed inappropriately, particularly those “students” who were far more developed than their peers, and wanted to have clear written limitations on dress code that they could refer to so that they would be safe from harassment claims.

I asked if “students” who were less developed would fly under the radar and wear rule-breaking clothes without being challenged, and the person describing the situation agreed that this would happen. It’s only the “students” who have something to show that shouldn’t be showing it.

Now, I talk and write a lot about gendered expectations of appearance, but I’ve gotta say, I was speechless. I just could not respond. The end result of this part of the discussion was that the bigger school’s parent community had drafted and agreed to the current rules, the smaller school currently had no formal dress code, and we should take a closer look in the new year at what we’d like our K-6 code to include.

While I couldn’t figure out where to even start with what I was hearing in the moment, it was important for me to touch base with my daughter. So, yesterday. I told her what had happened and what had been said. Her reaction was what I would expect from a student her age:

“Girls. Are wearing clothes. That male teachers can’t cope with. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Is that how you understand what I’ve said?”

“Yeah. And that’s really stupid. Girls have to change the way they’re dressed because adult men can’t cope? That’s sexist.”

We’re not going to be part of the school community when September comes, so my child’s opinion won’t be heard by the parent community, but I’m so glad that she recognizes that this particular set of rules and the reasons for them are so unbelievably messed up and damaging. She recognizes that this isn’t because her body is dangerous, but that it’s adult perceptions of her that are the danger. She also already understands something that took me years to figure out: her clothing, her body, and her appearance are not responsible for potential acts of harassment and violence against her.

I just can’t stop talking about dress codes.

I’m still thinking a whole lot about this dress code situation. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and read many comments on newspaper articles and blog posts, and I feel I need to address a few of the ones that keep coming up. 

School is a place of business.
The school as an institution serves several functions. First, it’s a place families can send their children for child care that their taxes pay for. This is even true for adolescents. We have a collective need to know that our minors are supervised for the majority of the day, and schools provide this. Second, schools are places of learning. Literacy, numeracy, arts, humanities, social sciences – schools provide space to facilitate this curricular learning. They also provide social learning. After all, isn’t the biggest (fallacious, incidentally) argument against homeschooling the lack of peer socialization? Children learn at school (and at home) about social and cultural expectations for behaviour. Finally, schools are used to replenish the workforce. In a 21st-century context, that’s exactly what schools are for. As students progress through the grades, they get slotted into the spaces deemed most appropriate for them: at its most basic, doers and thinkers. 

So, yes. ONE of the purposes of school is to prepare children for the world of work. That means that learning about and internalizing workplace conventions is part of what students are expected to do. Does this necessarily mean, though, that a “professional” dress code is the right across-the-board choice to accomplish this? Some of our children will grow up to be tradespeople. Others will be gardeners. Some will work in offices, others in design studios. With the ever-changing world of technology, a significant chunk of today’s 8th graders will be working from home. Some will be performing or visual artists. And some will work in positions that come with a uniform. We have no real way of knowing what a given student’s workplace appearance expectations will be when they hit adulthood. We can guess that for some, “appropriate attire” will be health-and-safety-based, while others will quite legitimately wear their pyjamas while they work. 

Here’s one suggestion for how to incorporate the conversation of “work-appropriate” clothing into the school environment: Careers class. Every student is required to take a half-credit Guidance course in Careers before graduating. Would it not make sense to incorporate direct instruction on workplace expectations into this course?

Next suggestion: add a co-op work term to graduation requirements. Reduce the number of electives a student needs to take to graduate, and add in a two-credit co-op work placement so that students have on-the-job opportunities to learn about workplace culture before officially entering it as adults.

Both of these steps involve real-life applications of “appropriate” workwear, at age-appropriate times.

We need to teach modesty so young people don’t see themselves as only sexual beings.
Many believe it is the school’s job to foster self-worth and self-esteem, particularly in young women. Part of this fostering is insisting that young women (and, really, girls, as dress codes are a k-12 phenomenon) fit within requirements that are sometimes arbitrary, often gendered, and enforced unequally (with curvy bigger girls getting much more negative attention from teachers and administrators than their less busty classmates). Here’s the thing, though: how many of these kids are actually thinking, full-time, that they’re selling themselves sexually? Adolescence is a funny time: they’re trying to figure out who they are outside of the definitions of adults. They may have a bit more autonomy to play with. They definitely have new bodies that are a mystery. How do you dress such a body? Through trial and error, really. Tweens and teens are trying on identities as much as they’re trying on clothes. To dismiss this need for experimentation by labelling it as “attention-seeking” or “hypersexualizing” is, I think, missing the greater point. As they play with appearance, they also play with social fit: clothes and accessories may signal particular interests, and act as connectors between students who may not have otherwise crossed paths. When left to their own devices to figure out what’s comfortable, most students will settle into clothes that make the most sense to them to be comfortable and physically active. I would argue that the attention we give clothes we as adults deem “too sexual” extends the period of time in which they’re worn. Rebellion is a significant element of identity construction: the more something is outright hated by the authority figures in an adolescent’s life, the longer that something will stick around.

I know it when I see it.
I’ve read through more than my share of school dress codes, and I’ve noted that many of them have lines that say “…etc.,” or “appropriate as deemed by the staff.” While there are other more specific elements to each of these codes, the ambiguity of these two examples gives me pause. How do we know what is and isn’t appropriate, to whom, and for what reasons? “Appropriate” carries with it an undeniable level of subjectivity, and that subjectivity can create enforcement procedures that disproportionately target people based on gender, race, and body size.

You’re a bad mother for supporting your child and not teaching her better.
Yep. Those of us who have young daughters and who speak out against arbitary dress codes have been called bad mothers. We’re not protecting our daughters from harm if we’re not teaching them that dressing like – how did an Ottawa Citizen commenter phrase it – “tarts” is unacceptable. I am not a fan of respectability politics. I’m also not a fan of telling my daughter that wearing modest clothing will keep her safe from violence. It’s not true. No matter what my child wears, she is at risk of harassment and abuse at the hands of men, simply because she lives in this world as a young woman. I refuse to be one more person in her life imposing a fear not based in reality on her. Instead, I support her in the development of her self image as a strong and powerful young person who is capable of choosing activity-appropriate garb. She may occasionally need reminders that it’s a gym day (so maybe skinny jeans aren’t the best option) or that it’s going to rain (so take an umbrella), but really? Aside from making sure her clothes are clean and in relatively good shape (I don’t care about knee holes, for example), I trust her judgement.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. I trust young people. Mine, yours, strangers I haven’t yet met. That’s a revolutionary statement for a parent and a teacher to make, and an important one. I trust them.

What happens when autistic young men meet up with pick-up artists? Pretty much what you’d expect.

I’m taking a big risk writing this post. I recognize that it may be misinterpreted as an agreement with concepts that go completely counter to my intention. It’s time, though. 

The media is currently abuzz with the planning and execution of Friday night’s murders at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. He must have been mentally ill, people argue, to have written a 100+ page manifesto explaining his motivations. No one sane would have uploaded a YouTube video detailing his plans for retribution against the women of the world who refused to date or have sex with him. While most mainstream media outlets gloss over the inherent misogyny of his actions (and the clear connection between his choices and those of Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989), the speculation of the role of mental health is high. Described as disturbed and unstable by people who claim to have known him well, the preferred focus appears to be on demands for greater gun control in the US as a way to prevent this from happening again. 

The other media focus has been (as with many mass murders committed by white men before Elliot Rodger) on his status as an autistic person. He had Asperger’s, folks say, so this is obviously why he hated women, killed his roommates, and planned to slaughter every woman he encountered. Because autism makes you disconnect, socially isolated, a dangerous loner. Because autism means you are incapable of empathy or of seeing other people as human beings. Because autistic people are volatile and unpredictable.

You do all realize that’s bullshit, right? 

Here, however, is where I may lose a few of you: while autism does not make someone more likely to be a misogynist, autistic men are definitely disporportionately more vulnerable to the messages of pick-up artists (PUA)  and men’s rights activists (MRA). The reasons for this are complicated, and deeply tied into our ableist, sex-negative culture. 

As a culture, we traditionally do as little as we can get away with when we discuss sexuality with children. We describe the mechanics of puberty in technical terms, we talk about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in as abstract ways as we can, and we avoid avoid avoid as much as possible, with the assumption that kids grow up and figure most of this out as they go along, or that they don’t need the information because it won’t be relevant to them, or we hope, as parents, that the school will do the awkward work for us. I’m just talking about kids who are perceived as able-bodied in this description. Disability compounds the conversation. As parents of autistic kids, we’re told to lower our expectations. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that our children will grow up to be asexual misfits who are incapable of making intimate connections and partnerships. 

For young autistic men who are seen as “high-functioning” (as I’m going to assume Rodger was), the two scenarios combine: we assume that they’ll probably not be interested in dating and relationships, but if they are, they’re smart enough to figure it out when it’s time. 

It’s not about being “smart enough.” The common understanding of how autistic people learn is that direct instruction is integral to comprehension. A lot of us are not so good with abstract concepts and figurative language. We are often concrete thinkers who benefit from step-by-step explanations. Guess who’s really good at offering young men step-by-step explanations on how to get a girlfriend? 

Pick-up artists. They demystify a terrifying process. While social skills groups and parents go around the idea of dating and sexuality, PUAs jump right in and offer concrete steps on how to get exactly what you want. They give advice on appearance and approach, and offer praise for attempts at contact. They acknowledge that autistic young men are capable of and interested in being sexual with other people (in this instance, women) – validation few others in their lives are willing to consider. 

So, yeah. Autistic young men who are interested in women are definitely at risk of embracing MRA philosophy, and of emulating misogynist pick-up artist practice. There. I said it. It’s out there. Now, what do we do about it? Simple answer, more complicated execution. The short answer is that we ensure that every young person has access to comprehensive sexuality education that’s based in respect, mutual pleasure, and consent. We humanize sexuality, and include the emotional parts of it in our conversations with youth. We acknowledge that sexual interest lies on a spectrum. We reinforce the idea that no person on this planet is owed sex by another person, for any reason. 

For autistic youth*  in particular, we incorporate dating and sexuality into social skills curricula. We talk frankly about dating behaviour, about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We study examples from popular culture and role play how to talk to women respectfully. We model concrete ways of interacting with romantic interests, and provide young people a tool box of strategies. We provide a space in which they can talk freely about their feelings of frustration and isolation, but also about their successes. We replace the PUA step-by-step approach to getting laid with our own step-by-step approach to building confidence in interacting with attractive-to-us people. 

Yes, the fact that Elliot Rodger was SEEN AS autistic matters. The fact that the only people he felt took him seriously also actively encourage men to hate women matters more. 

* Throughout this post, I’ve spoken exclusively about young autistic men who are sexually attracted to women. I have not talked about men attracted to men, nor have I talked at all about autistic women’s experience of sexuality. I am in no way ignoring that comprehensive sexuality education needs to include a concrete approach for young women, nor am I overlooking sexual orientation as a piece of this educational approach. For the context of this particular piece, however, men who want to have sex with women are my target audience, for what I think are obvious reasons. 

(edited to clarify that we don’t actually know if he was autistic, only that it’s been reported.)

Dress codes, redux

It’s that time of year! It’s finally starting to get warm enough to put the winter coats away for good, and the summer clothes are starting to make their way into our weekly rotation. After a long cold stretch, it’s such a relief to be able to feel the sun and breeze on our skins in the time we have outside every day.

It’s also a contentious time of year: though we know it happens throughout the year with yoga pants and leggings scandals, school dress codes hit their biggest enforcement times as the warmer layers are peeled away, even at the primary level. It seems like every day over the last week or so, someone in my Facebook feed has posted an article or blog post involving one more tween/teenaged girl who has been taken aside for dress code violations. Arguments go back and forth:

Schools are places of business, where students are supposed to be learning how to dress appropriately.

Schools are places where teenaged girls should feel safe to try on different identities without fear of being targeted for harassment.

It’s too hard for boys to concentrate when girls are dressed in ways that draw attention to their bodies.

Dress codes are enforced haphazardly, primarily target girls and young women, and those students who are more physically developed are targeted more often than those who are not.

Students should be learning how to follow the rules, and parents agreed to send their kids there knowing the rules. Flaunting a disregard for the rules of the space shows a lack of respect for authority.

Dress codes that are gendered are a symptom and a reinforcer of rape culture.

This is just a handful of the arguments I’ve heard from both sides of the fence. As with most arguments, everyone believes they are correct about their own perspective. I understand all of these sides. I’m sure it can be distracting if a young woman is wearing a tank top and shorts in class. I also think that everything on the planet acts as a distraction for many teenagers (girls as well as boys), and I am far more interested in supporting students as they learn how to self-moderate and control their responses to the world around them than I am in shielding them from having to ever figure this out.

I also recognize how some would see value in having universal rules from K-12: if 5-year-olds are expected to wear longer shorts and belly-covering tanks with thick straps, it won’t be so hard to convince them to do so when they’re 12 and it “matters” (and it only matters when our bodies hit that point where adult sexualization comes into play). We’re teaching modesty, in theory, from a very early age, so that adolescents will embrace this as a value when they start to make their own decisions about how they want to be seen in the world.

I hear the argument. I get it. I don’t agree with it, though. I think that when little girls are told from early childhood that they have to cover their bodies, they internalize the message that something about their bodies needs to be hidden. Whether this is for social conventions of modesty or personal safety or any other reason, shame becomes associated with appearance very early.

I’ve written previously about my experiences of sexual objectification in high school, and how much shame I felt about my changing body both before and after it received unwanted attention. This experience has informed my current thinking on dress codes. I don’t entirely believe that it’s the distraction of the young men we’re focused on. I do think that top-down enforced dress codes include an element of adults sexualizing children and youth, and may lead to a feeling of tacit permission by adults for young men to provide unwanted attention to the young women in their classes – regardless of appearance.

I’m actually not against dress codes. I think, however, that we do everyone a disservice when we don’t include all the stakeholders in the decision-making process. A major focus in the Ontario curriculum, at all grade levels, is critical thinking. We expect students to learn how to think critically across all subjects. Does it not make sense, then, to have them apply these skills in practical, hands-on ways? Have a conversation with students:

Why do we have dress codes? What’s the function of a dress code in our school?

What helps you learn? What gets in the way of your learning?

What are the safety issues that go into certain clothing choices? How do we define “safety?”

You want to create a dress code you don’t have to enforce? Get the people most affected by it to be your primary stakeholders.

Not in my backyard

Imagine you’re a home owner, living in a mixed-income suburb. You find out that a house down the street has recently been purchased for use as a group home for youth with complex issues. How do you react? Do you worry about the safety of your own children? Or maybe the value of your property? Do you welcome the youth to your community and try to help them feel at home in their new environment?

This isn’t a hypothetical situation. A few months ago, Griffin Centre, a Toronto-area mental health agency, purchased a house in Etobicoke to use as a group home. Four young people moved into the home, and there have a been a few incidents where Emergency Services have been contacted. Now, this doesn’t surprise me: teens with mental health issues who are currently unable to live with family are likely going to need some time to adjust to a new environment. Some of the youth in the house are apparently autistic, and all also have developmental disabilities. Autistic people generally aren’t known for navigating transitions easily, so it doesn’t seem unusual that police cars and ambulances would make regular appearances for the first while.

It’s too much, though, for the residents of the surrounding community. It’s not the kids that are a problem, it’s where they are. They should be on a farm – somewhere rural, maybe. “Mental people” don’t belong in residential communities, after all. How do we explain these unpredictable, imperfect people to our totally normal children? How do we keep our innocent babies safe from the knowledge that some people aren’t the same as they are?

“This is a community for people, not for that.”

Not for that.

That.

Not people.

That.

If it were just random nameless community members, it would be bad enough. But Toronto councillor Doug Ford had to weigh in as well.

“You can’t destroy a community like this. People have worked 30 years for their home … My heart goes out to kids with autism. But no one told me they’d be leaving the house. If it comes done to it, I’ll buy the house myself and resell it.”

No one told me they’d be leaving the house.

One more person, this one in a position of power, dehumanizing disabled youth.

Let me tell you something: it is entirely possible that if my kids were raised by different parents that one or both of them may have been in a situation where a residential home might have been needed for a while. Hell, I’ll be honest: I have no idea if they’ll make it to adulthood without needing a residential option of some sort – none of us know this.

And that’s kind of the point, really. Not one parent in that community has a guarantee that their delicate snowflakes won’t be the cause of several police car or EMS visits to their homes. Not one of them has a guarantee that their family members won’t end up in a group home or residential rehab or a correctional facility. Many of those community members will find out over the next decade that one or more of their own kids has autism, and will have to make some hard choices about the future.

Is anyone going to call a town meeting to force these families out of the community? I doubt it. These hardworking homeowners who have experienced hard times will be given a pass. Their neighbours will show compassion, show up with casseroles, whisper their own concerns about their family members. They will show empathy, and will see them as people.

Just as they should for all of their neighbours.

The assumptions we make about “real” connections

In the last few days, this Look Up clip has popped up on my Facebook timeline at least a half-dozen times. I finally took the time to watch it after reading the feedback of several friends, all of whom raved about it. While I get that the artist’s message is one of connectedness, I’m left feeling like he’s not talking to me. 

I discovered “social media” in the early 1990s, with BBSes and Usenet groups. Rather than leading to an inability to communicate with other people, I felt more connected than I had in, well, possibly my entire life. I didn’t have to worry about the social expectations and pitfalls of meeting people in unstructured moments in time in person: I could think about what had been said, and be considerate before responding. I could work through the various potential meanings of what people wrote to me without feeling pressured to respond in a certain way. The best part was that I could still choose to meet and hang out with these same people in person, having figured out a shorthand on how to interact with them ahead of time. 

Today, I rely a fair bit on texting for communication outside of my work. When speaking is hard for me, as it sometimes is, I’ll even text someone right beside me to have a conversation with them. What the Look Up video misses is the accessibility issue of social media. I’m nowhere near the only person in the world whose social world has opened up as communication technology has become more easily accessible. Cell phones, tablets, laptops – they’re assistive technology devices for many of us, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow us to use the technology to communicate on a broader scale. 

I agree that balance is wonderful, and making sure that you’re happy with your level of connection with the people in your life is important. Connection comes in many different packages, however, and for many of us, looking down sometimes helps us to be able to look up. 

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