It's tough to be a high-school principal today. That's because the inmates are running the asylum.
Last month Scot Bishop, the principal at Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph, Ont., decided to remind his students about appropriate clothing during warm weather. "Dress cool, not skanky," he advised them over the intercom. After that, all hell broke loose. Female students accused the principal of sexism and slut-shaming. "The issue is not that students are wearing provocative clothing," declared Brittany Harlick, who organized a protest. "It's that young bodies are being sexualized and that's a felony."
The school board had a word with Mr. Bishop, who issued an apology to all he had offended.
Dress codes have relaxed a bit in recent decades. Today, ripped jeans, saggy jeans, exposed bra straps, ragged short-shorts, and tights (sans skirts) are almost de rigueur. About all that's required is that the kids' clothes cover their underwear. Some things never change, though. As always, the adults' job is to set reasonable boundaries on decorum, and the students' job is to subvert them.
Ever since the '60s (and no doubt long before), students have complained that school dress codes are arbitrary, demeaning, antiquated, and an outrageous violation of their freedom of expression. But now they have another weapon in their fight against adult oppression. School dress codes reinforce rape culture.
"Dress codes lead to the sexualization of young women, the punishing of women for taking control of their own bodies and the blaming/shaming of women who don't dress overly-modest," asserted a petition to the Fredericton school board, which had a heated dress-code protest last fall. "Blaming women for the clothes they wear rather than blaming men for sexualizing women is also a big contributor to rape culture."
In other words, if a female student comes to school dressed like a street person/hooker/skank, it's your problem. Somewhere, perhaps, there is a line. But the authorities are not entitled to draw it.
Last month, graduating seniors at Biglerville High School in Pennsylvania got some tips from the administration about how to dress for the awards ceremony. "Gentlemen," said the letter. "PULL YOUR PANTS UP! Your underwear choices should be your own private choice and remain private." As for the girls, it counselled, "No bellies showing … Please remember as you select an outfit for the awards assembly that we don't want to be looking at 'sausage rolls' as Mrs. Elliott calls them. As you get dressed remember that you can't put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack."
This frank if tactless advice was greeted by torrents of outrage from critics, who called it sexist and degrading. One offended mother threatened to sue for sexual harassment. The school board quickly grovelled.
Girls, of course, should not be blamed if guys leer at/hit on/get distracted by them. Guys must learn that girls deserve respect no matter how they dress. But there's something disingenuous in this debate. It is a fiction that girls dress only to please themselves, for comfort. Every former teenage girl knows that most girls dress to attract guys. And every former teenage boy knows that most guys think horny thoughts around seven times a minute. That's not rape culture. That's biology.
Thanks to social media, girls in skimpy clothes are the new champions of women's rights. After the principal at Alexi Halket's Toronto school politely suggested that her crop top was inappropriate for the classroom, she took to social media and organized Crop Top Day, which went viral. "School dress codes teach female students that their bodies are a problem and they have to cover up," she told MTV. "They should really be teaching acceptance and body positivity, and also human rights."
Of course, as Ms. Halket will soon discover, feminist arguments for wearing crop tops don't cut much ice in the adult world of work. But for now, she and other youthful protesters can bask in fame. "We are clearly in a moment of social action," two Brock University professors, Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby, wrote in this newspaper last week. "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?"
Personally, I think it means that high-school kids might all be better off in uniforms. Not that they won't find something else to protest about.