Fighting against dress code sexism at school

Lindsey Stocker, 17 suspended for wearing shorts.

Lindsey Stocker, 17 suspended for wearing shorts.

In the last week or so there has been a spate of media stories about school girls with something in common. They’re all essentially about teenage girls’ bodies being deemed somehow inappropriate for school. Together these accounts tell an interesting story about femininity but a depressing one about how we treat teenage girls.

First, there was the story in Victoria of a teacher in a special school shaving the armpits of a disabled 14 year old girl in front of her class while imparting ‘life skills’. As it turns out, the teacher never sought the consent of the girl for this activity and so the student was understandably very upset by it. When the girl’s mother heard about it she was upset too. But the school seemed to be more confused than anything by the episode. They seemed to wonder what the fuss was about.

Maybe because removing body hair is seen as so unquestionably female, so core to the definition of woman that it scarcely warrants second thought, let alone an ‘opt out’ clause for school. Rituals like hair removal, wearing make-up and high heels, walking and sitting with exaggerated grace, and keeping one’s voice moderated are viewed as the default for women.

Biological, rather than performance. Almost natural. (And I note here that I perform all these rituals myself, so I draw a distinction between critical analysis and the policing of women’s behaviour in a way that further supports sexism). These beauty tasks have such legitimacy that not complying with them, simply remaining physically unaltered, is seen to be a statement act. In fact, you can be considered dangerously antisocial for it. Why would a school then seek permission to assist you with simply maintaining the essence of your gender?


And yet, we also believe femininity can be a deliberate act of mischievous conjuring. Your femaleness can exhibit itself excessively, and when it does, how we respond to it will be your responsibility. It is as though your display of femininity is not innate after all, but instead something under your control, something you may misuse. For instance, bras are deemed compulsory items of female clothing but evidence that you are wearing one can be judged intentionally distracting for those around you. (Of course, not wearing one is also seen as highly provocative).

Another recent news story involved a school in Canada undertaking a clothing inspection and sending female students home for having visible bra straps. Other dress regulations at that school included “high enough in the neck to cover the crease of the breast”. Not just your cleavage, but even the hint of roundness protruding from your chest.

Clothing rules about breasts are not only largely reactionary, they’re impractical, too. For those with a decent rack I can attest to the difficulty in finding clothing that doesn’t somehow highlight your breasts. Even quite modest clothing fits tightly over larger breasts. There is nothing all that deliberate about it and it is certainly not an invitation for sexual interaction.

What becomes apparent from all of these clothing determinations is that a girl’s body can’t just be. Rather, it is to be viewed and interpreted by us and sanctioned accordingly. Yet another recent news item reported a female student being sent home from school, after first being lectured in front of her class, for wearing shorts. As her mother subsequently pointed out - the denim shorts were neither torn nor worn low on her waist. There was nothing particularly suggestive about them and you can’t help think similar shorts worn by a boy student would likely be seen as quite sexless. But those bare female legs, even on a hot summer day, can be judged misbehavior.

The bodies of teenage girls are all about other people’s definitions. However innocuously presented, in fact, innocence is fetishised, we pretty much don’t know how to see a girl without objectifying her. Youthful beauty is how we define desire. And advertising sells products by associating them with youth to such an extent, that I’d argue teenage girl bodies not only represent desire to us, but also consumption.

Into all this comes a teenage girl. She simply wants to be present in her body. At times that means enjoying the excitement of a body changing, and at times it is sexual, but at other times it is utterly devoid of anything to do with desire. Regardless, she is never free of our interpretation - of her behaviour, her body and her clothing. We transpose our responses on to her, together with our great sense of entitlement, and then we demand she be accountable for it.

To both sexualise and silence teenage girls is a terribly dangerous combination. What teenage girls need urgently is to be heard by us as much as they are seen. In reading those recent media reports I was struck by the plaintive words of the teenage girl sent home for wearing shorts:  “when I started explaining why I didn’t understand that rule, they didn’t really want to hear anything I had to say.. I felt very attacked.. and I wanted to tell them how I felt”. Yep. Keep talking girl, keep talking.


36 comments so far

  • I wish we collectively did this so much better than we do. It feels like I'm doing a public service when I strip off at the swimming pool change rooms covered in hair. There is always a teenager that notices. It also feels like an act of rebellion.

    My 5 year old is already super aware of boys toys and girls toys and I've had to try and equip her with tools to make sense of it "some people think there are boys toys and girls toys, but it's not really true". I was very pleased to see the front page with the boy dressed in a school uniform last week, so I could give her another example of the gender rules not strictly applying. I have to wonder if we weren't so fixed in setting and applying gender rules, it would take the pressure off everyone who doesn't want to fit in the box precisely.

    Date and time
    June 11, 2014, 6:42AM
    • This is not a gender issue, at all. Guess what I get to wear on a 40 degree day to client meetings? Full suit, tie, socks etc...guess what the female account managers wear? Loose summer dresses and sandals. When I was a student, I had to shave my face, or we'd be sent home. We always had to wear shorts of a particular length. No one ever suggested, or suggests to this day, that we're telling boys that their body is something to be ashamed of. This is simply about societal standards and, if you want the hard truth of it, women have FAR more flexibility than men in this regard. The only reason you hear about women having issues is because they have a lot more leeway. Boys just wear what they're told for the most part, with little choice.

      Date and time
      June 11, 2014, 9:00AM
      • I very much agree. This issue isn't specific to gender. Both boys and girls are told what they're allowed to wear. Same goes for men and women, though to a lesser degree than children, and women do seem to have more flexibility in what they can wear.

        That Canadian girl sent home for wearing shorts, it wasn't the shorts themselves that were the problem. Rather, it was that they didn't meet the school dress code for length of shorts. A rule that applies to both boys and girls. That seems fine to me. It does appear that the authorities didn't handle the situation very well, though. They used a bad method to point out the dress code infraction.

        As for men having to wear a full suit to visit clients, you have my sympathy. My job doesn't involve visiting clients very often, so I never have to wear a suit. Have to blame society for that one. Apparently most people still believe that a man wearing a suit is more professional, when all it really means is that he, at one time in his past, visited a suit shop or a tailor.

        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 12:11PM
      • @Swarley -

        I agree that suits for men as almost the only 'professional' attire - especially in hot weather - is silly. They're natty but impractical. However, while women have a broader range of work clothing to choose from, they also have to deal with a similarly broad range of rules about their clothes. Shave their legs, wear makeup, what kinds of dresses (neckline, hemline), etc. Some companies even have female-only seminars on appropriate attire.

        Note though that this article is about TEENAGERS. "When I was a student, I had to shave my face, or we'd be sent home." I doubt this is the case in most schools these days. And if any school where it is the case would have a LOT more rules for girls - again, shave your legs, armpits, appropriate hairdos, skirt hemlines, necklines, jewellery, etc. - and unlike the rules for men, it's frequently about suppressing "overt" sexuality.

        "The only reason you hear about women having issues is because they have a lot more leeway." Cross that last word off and you have it about right. =P

        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 1:14PM
      • The gender-nazis definitely have their sights set on little boys. Girl in a spider-man suit, totally cool, high fives all round. Boy in a princess dress - and it's all 'are you worried?'. No one looks at a girl playing with cars and says oh, she's gonna be butch. But a little boy's interests are seen as predictors of future sexuality, or that he's going to be trans. Fait acompli.

        Teen girls have a delicate line to walk. They must be feminine, even if they choose to express this androgynously, yet not sexually so. Boys on the other hand have a line they must not cross - boys must be boys. But that's a whole different article and a whole different conversation.

        Teen girls are vulnerable in a way teen boys aren't. Perhaps these 'guidelines' are an attempt to protect them, in the same way that we discourage boys from being too feminine - to protect them. Maybe it is time we started working on the attitudes in society instead of hammering our round peg kids into square holes for 'their own good'.

        Blue Mountains
        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 1:39PM
      • "The only reason you hear about women having issues is because they have a lot more leeway."

        The main reason you hear about women having issues is because they have a lot more choices.

        Also, it would never make the news if a straight boy complained. Back in my day boys got the stick over their appearance.

        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 1:46PM
      • "meness"

        I'd rather have the tyranny of choice, rather than sweat through summer again, to be honest ;) My point regarding professional attire was that we all are forced to dress according to societies expectations and in western society, I don't believe women have it worse than men. That's just my opinion...yours may be different sitting on the other side of the fence of course :) Perhaps that's why so many men in suits feel so bad about women being forced to wear the burqa (ah yes, "choice" providing you're happy dealing with consequences and can escape cultural programming). Wearing all black and bundled up in the summer sun is very unpleasant (and really, when you think about how sweaty you end up, unprofessional too).

        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 2:20PM
    • "For those with a decent rack I can attest to the difficulty in finding clothing that doesn’t somehow highlight your breasts. Even quite modest clothing fits tightly over larger breasts."

      And how! Thank you for pointing that out. Short of wearing a turtleneck or a tent, just about no article of clothing hides a larger pair of boobs. Even a business shirt holds its dangers... either with a hint of cleavage peeking out the top, or the tension in buttons across the front of a shirt that otherwise fits (not to mention the dreaded "cleavage peephole" that can emerge between those buttons). Every woman who's ever been asked to "put those away" must silently wonder to herself just exactly where we are supposed to put them.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      June 11, 2014, 9:43AM
      • Exactly right, Red Pony. Tops that look appropriate or even baggy on smaller-chested women will always, somehow, manage to look provocative on those with larger breasts.

        Don't even get me started on slogan t-shirts.

        Date and time
        June 11, 2014, 4:59PM
    • I have no problem with the Canadian school sending girls home for having visible bra straps (which I read as "bra strap actually visible", not "intend of bra strap visible"). For me this is the equivalent of chiding boys for having their underwear visible above their pants.

      This is why I love that Australia has school uniforms. Wear them correctly, then outside school you can wear whatever you want. School is for education, not quibbling over hemlines and cleavage.

      Date and time
      June 11, 2014, 10:02AM

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