Dress codes and young women are having a major cultural moment here in Canada. In the past week alone, two Ontario teens lashed back at their schools for questioning the appropriateness of their outfits—and they gained a swift, strong show of solidarity from their peers.
On Monday, a grade 12 student in London, Ont., was told her outfit—a tank top and ripped jeans—was inappropriate for school. Her community came to her support, donning similar outfits in her honour and using the hashtag #MyBodyMyBusiness.
On the same day, Alexi Halket, a student at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, was told that her crop top looked too much like a bra and was instructed to change or cover up. She took the issue to both the school and her peers, prompting “Crop Top Day” on May 24, a day when both male and female students donned midriff-baring shirts in solidarity.
But before you dismiss this as a story of whiny, entitled Canadian kids, let’s take a look at similar international stories in the same time period. Recently, a teenage Muslim girl in France was banned from her high school class for wearing a black maxi skirt, which was deemed “too religious” for the country’s strict secular laws. Her supporters—united under the hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux, which means “I wear my skirt as I please”—were quick to point out that this look on a non-Muslim girl would have been seen as boho chic. Meanwhile, a female law student in Algiers was denied entrance to an exam because the law faculty deemed her skirt indecent. Her supporters started a Facebook page—“My dignity is not in the length of my skirt”—and uploaded leg selfies in solidarity.
Dress codes for women are not a recent phenomenon, of course. What’s new is the backlash against the absurd notion that the wrong outfit has the power to harm the woman wearing it, the boys in her midst or even society at large.
Admittedly, I might not have chosen Crop Top Day as my personal form of protest. It gave me a feeling of unease, similar to the idea of putting your cup size on your Facebook status to raise awareness for breast cancer. What is the ratio of activism to exhibitionism? But then I read an interview with Halket and she was so inspired and thoughtful. She is motivated by a higher goal:
“School dress codes teach female students that their bodies are a problem and they have to cover up. They should really be teaching acceptance and body positivity, and also human rights. A woman wearing something comfortable isn’t an issue; telling her that she needs to cover her body is. Sending girls home because what they’re wearing is ‘disrupting’ the learning of their peers, especially males, is sending the message that a male’s education is more important than a female’s. You’re telling a girl that her body and her skin are symbols of her sexuality and that if she wants respect and to avoid sexual harassment, particularly from male students, she has to cover up. That is so messed up…. I hope to keep the conversation going and start a change in the way the world views women of all ages.”
So to all those commenters lamenting how these girls are going to have no idea how to dress for work in the real world if they can’t follow these simple rules, you might be correct on that point. But who cares? Isn’t it more important that they enter that “real” world fully equipped to ask questions and challenge the status quo? To know that propriety can’t be measured by a fingertip test?
I’m thrilled to read stories of teenage girls finding their voices. Maybe not perfectly yet or with perfect understanding of the world, but they’re asking questions, determining what’s important for them and advocating for one another. I’m so glad they’re keeping this conversation going.