Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby are professors in the department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University.
We are currently in a moment of social action. Love it or hate it, young people – not just young women, but young men, too – are challenging their schools' dress codes across the country. One recent example erupted at a Toronto high school, where Alexi Halket was sent to the office for wearing a crop top deemed "inappropriate." In response, Alexi organized "Crop Top Day: An Event Protesting the Sexualization of Women's Bodies." The activist fire seems to be spreading from school to school. What does this mean for youthful politics in Canada? And what does this mean for feminism – long considered dead among younger generations, which are often labelled apathetic?
The premise of the protests is that young women's bodies and dress are being labelled "distracting" to boys – a notion that contains underlying beliefs that are disturbing and dangerous. As "distractions," girls are held accountable for boys' behaviour, an easy step away from blaming girls when boys sexually harass or even sexually assault them.
But is this fair to either girls or boys? Why should girls be held responsible for boys' actions? And why should it be assumed that the boys are unable to control themselves? Young men should be angry about this negative characterization. And young women should be angry about being cast as both sexual temptresses and moral gatekeepers in the school.
This contradictory message not only demeans young men, but suggests that young women are simply "asking for it" when they show even their shoulders, back, and arms – as was the case with Lauren Wiggins in Moncton, who was sent home for wearing a floor-length halter dress and then suspended when she questioned the decision.
While school administrators may think that school dress codes target young men and women equally, often the specific listing of girls' dress (spaghetti straps, short shorts, miniskirts, bra straps) – and, even more specifically, how such dress codes are enforced – affect young women the most. Ask yourself, when was the last time a young man was sent home for wearing a tank top? Or for dressing in a way that was considered "distracting" to young women?
Double standards prevail when it is unthinkable that a girl might be sexually distracted by what a boy wears or does, but the reverse is part of common-sense thinking. Girls are telling us that when they are singled out for their dress, they feel shamed for wearing something comfortable on a warm day – and this is in a broader fashion climate where things such as spaghetti straps line the shelves at the mall.
We are clearly in the midst of something exciting and important. After all, when was the last time we witnessed such collective political action from high-school students? Students have often questioned dress codes, but protests over the past few years have taken on a new, urgent tone that is political and feminist.
Many adults say that young people are politically disengaged, but this example offers thoughtful political engagement. Rather than dismissing these young people as rebellious teens who should simply obey the rules, we need to take the time – as parents, teachers and administrators – to listen to their arguments and rethink dress codes.
Restricting how a young woman dresses will never solve social problems, such as sexual violence – it will only perpetuate the mistaken belief that women are the ones to blame.