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.