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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

What positively supernatural powers an inch of teenage girl’s skin has. This inch, left uncovered, apparently has the ability to transform teen boys into werewolves who can no longer concentrate on trigonometry. It has the power to turn the girl from someone who respects herself into a downward-spiralling floozy. Don’t even get me started on the chaos that springs from a strip of bare stomach. That way madness lies.

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous. School dress codes are ridiculous – the idea that Satan patrols the one inch separating permissible skirt lengths from ineligible ones, looking for wayward souls to steal. It’s equally funny that we worry about male students being hypnotized by a glimpse of bra strap when they possess in their pockets the means to watch pretty much every known form of sexual behaviour performed by sentient beings. Bra straps are the least of our problems.

I think educators know this. Yet they’re still beholden to antiquated dress codes, developed locally and administered haphazardly across the country. And this results in unfortunate scenes such as the one my colleague Caroline Alphonso reported on this week, in which a principal and vice-principal at a Catholic school in Midland, Ont., went into a Grade 12 classroom to check on the girls’ skirt lengths – in front of their male peers. Some of the students say that the principal observed that “legs are pretty.” (The principal and vice-principal later returned to the classroom to apologize.)

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The episode was caught on film, which means it will resonate far outside that classroom. It will resonate because many students, and their parents, are taking exception to the idea that a teenager on her way to history class is little more than a temptress in a tank top. Girls are done with being blamed for the crime of being in possession of bodies; and fortunately, some school boards are starting to see the light.

Parents, too, are becoming aware of the coded messages about “modesty” and “self-respect” sent to their children. Karma Brown, a novelist living in Oakville, Ont., was surprised when her 10-year-old daughter came home in the first week of school worried that she’d be “dress-coded.” The entire primary school, which goes up to Grade 8, had been told at an assembly that they’d need to adhere to a dress code that forbids crop tops and sets standards for strap width and skirt length (the code also bans offensive messaging on clothing and hats indoors).

It was the first time Ms. Brown or her daughter had heard about the dress code, which the school said had been in existence but not previously enforced. “I was really angry,” Ms. Brown said. She e-mailed the school for clarification, but didn’t receive a detailed response. Then she told her daughter that she was free to wear what she wanted to school, so long as her clothing was comfortable for her to learn and study in.

The larger issue, though, continues to bother Ms. Brown: “It’s a problem, because it’s about the sexualization of our young daughters’ bodies. … If they can work just fine in a crop top and shorts that go to mid-thigh, then they should be allowed to wear them to school, because that’s appropriate for the learning environment. Why is it on the girls to stand up and be dress-coded?”

If you tell a child who hasn’t even reached puberty that a flash of her stomach or thigh is immodest and deserving of punishment, then you’re telling her that her body will forever be the site of unwanted attention, and it’s her job to repel it. It is a toxic seed to plant in a child’s mind, and it blooms decades later in a society that continues to blame women for “attracting” the abuses perpetrated on them.

Students are fighting back. Across the country, girls and boys are protesting dress codes they think are ridiculous, sexist, racist or outmoded – literally outside the fashion of the times. (Go shopping for an adolescent girl, and you’ll find that much of the clothing would contravene school dress codes, unless you’re browsing in the leaf-bag aisle of Home Hardware.)

High-school girls are, quite rightly, objecting to the sexism that frames their clothing choices as a distraction to young men. Students in one high school in Newfoundland put up a sign that said, “Men are never told that their legs, arms or stomachs are a problem for other people. They are seen as human & very rarely seen as something that is there for sexual exploits. I am a 15-year-old girl and if you are sexualizing me you are the problem!”

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In Quebec, there’s an entire movement called the yellow squares that has organized to fight the arbitrary nature of dress codes (some of the girls wrote on their stomachs, “Parlons-en”, or let’s talk about it.) They’ve won some notable victories. In Southwestern Ontario, a Grade 10 student named Mallory Johnston was suspended after she’d put up posters with slogans such as “Stop Objectifying Women.” She said several of her friends had been admonished or sent home for showing their bra straps. Taking this one step further, a group of girls in Princeton, B.C., showed up braless at high school to protest similar bra-strap shaming of their peers. Amazingly, there are no reports that the high school crumbled as a result of the missing support garments.

These students’ advocacy is having measurable results. Some public-school boards, including ones in Edmonton and Victoria, have changed their dress-code policies to make them more gender neutral. Toronto’s public-school board is evaluating its policy at the moment. Pretty soon, the tyranny of the terrifying inch of thigh may be over, and students can go back to the real business of school: staring out the window and waiting for the bell to ring.

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