Simone St. Louis-Anderson doesn’t mind having a school dress code. The newly minted eighth grader agrees with the teachers at her Toronto middle school that the classroom is a place to learn and, as in the workplace, student attire should reflect the serious nature of the tasks at hand. She just wishes the code would accommodate her shorts.
“Stores don’t sell a lot of shorts that are [long enough to meet] dress code,” she says, referring to her school’s rule that hemlines reach the wearer’s fingertips. For Simone, that sartorial challenge has been compounded by one of the cruel realities of early adolescence: Over the summer, she grew.
But how much thigh is too much thigh? And who gets to reveal bare shoulders? For educators, students and parents, navigating the restrictions – and negotiating their subtexts – can be tricky.
Jenn St. Louis, Simone’s mother, recalls a dress-code lecture her daughter’s Grade 6 class received from the principal: Her take-home message was that girls’ inappropriate dress poses a distraction to boys and male teachers. Both Simone and her mother were stunned.
“If a male teacher is distracted by my 13-year-old’s shoulders, he needs a new job,” St. Louis says, who turned the occasion into teachable moment about the relationship between wardrobe decisions and emerging sexuality.
It’s not the first time school dress codes have raised eyebrows. Last year, Halifax-area junior high Eastern Passage Education Centre made headlines for restricting “distracting” yoga pants and leggings, an imposition some felt unfairly targeted and sexualized female students.
Sometimes the messaging isn’t so subtle: At Simone’s school, a female teacher explicitly warned girls against dressing provocatively so as not to “get raped,” echoing the Toronto police officer who, in 2011, dispensed similar advice to York University students that prompted the international Slut Walk movement.
Dr. Rebecca Raby is a professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University and the author of School Rules: Obedience, Discipline and Elusive Democracy, which probes the relationship between school dress codes and perceptions of ideal conduct. In researching her book, Dr. Raby interviewed dozens of secondary school students and staff to find that dress-code language does focus particularly on girls’ attire. She also found that the sexual undertones of female-targeted dress code rules put some teachers in an awkward position.
“I had some male and lesbian teachers specifically say to me that they feel very uncomfortable addressing [girls’ dress-code infractions], and other teachers then get frustrated with them for that,” Dr. Raby says.
According to Dr. Raby’s findings, student interpretations of school dress codes vary. While the students she spoke with tended to be critical of rules they felt were “illogical, overly focused on girls’ dress, over the top and inconsistently enforced,” many considered school dress codes to be of some value.
“Some girls, in particular, were interested in seeing other girls’ clothing being regulated,” she says.
Some teachers also see the value in removing potential wardrobe preoccupations from the classroom. Lara Stokes, a Grade 8 teacher at a Scarborough, Ont., Catholic elementary school, says that her school hasn’t looked back since introducing mandatory uniforms four years ago.
“It promotes a sense of equality and community at an age when [students] are very focused on appearances,” Stokes says.
Joe Bower, a Red Deer, Alta., educator who spent nine years teaching in a public middle school, says that teachers and administrators should make it a priority to gather students’ input before putting regulations to paper.
“It shouldn’t just be a dictum that comes down from the people who have all the power,” Bower says. “Schools need to be democratic, a model for the kind of society we want the kids to live in.”
Dr. Raby agrees: “Ideally, both teachers and students would be involved in conversations about what is important in their school community.”
In the two years since her Grade 6 lecture against the perils of inappropriate dress – and ensuing student protest – the dress code at Simone St. Louis-Anderson’s school has been slightly loosened. Most notably, tank-top straps can now be the width of two fingers instead of four.
“The school talked to the kids about what we thought was appropriate and then they had the parents sign [a copy of the new rules] if they agreed with it,” says Simone, an approach she thinks made sense.
Still, she says, the rules could be a little less rigid: “It’s kind of ridiculous to buy all new shorts just because I grew an inch or two.”