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.

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3 Comments

  1. May 26, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    “I’m also not a fan of telling my daughter that wearing modest clothing will keep her safe from violence. ” This. Two hundred times this. There is so much to the whole blaming the victim mentality that is beyond laughably absurd. And I think it starts with this very idea that just needs to be eliminated.

  2. Alex said,

    May 27, 2014 at 7:56 am

    Reblogged this on Alex in Wonderland.


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