School dress codes: Are bra straps offensive?

A Labrador high school sends dozens of teen girls home for visible bra straps.

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Photo: iStockphoto

A Labrador school is feeling the heat after they sent two dozen students home for breaking the strict dress code rules. Most of the rule-breakers were girls who were told that their visible bra straps or short dresses may “distract” male students from learning their higher math.

Dress codes around the country have been coming under fire recently because they disproportionately punish female students. The onus is always on the girls to dress appropriately so that they don’t distract male students, or male teachers.

The Labrador school dress code even included the line: “Menihek Staff are becoming very uncomfortable with the way that some students are dressing.” However, the reference to teachers has since been removed since the story hit the media. The dress code bans shoulder-bearing tops (for boys, as well as girls) and anything that shows the “crease of the breast.”

A 14-year-old in Ottawa went to school in a parent-approved outfit that included a tank top with spaghetti straps, knowing that she was in violation of her school’s dress code that bars visible undergarments. But as Tallie Doyle told the National Post: “If they didn’t really want to see my bra straps I didn’t have to wear a bra at all.”

She strikes me as a feminist-in-the-making, not a sexpot trying to distract her fellow students.

I get it. I am vigilant in making sure that my eight-year-old daughter isn’t wearing sexualized clothing. And I often do a double-take when I see my teenage neighbour walking down the street in shorty-shorts and midriff-bearing tops. (I think my 14-year-old son may, too). I know that it’s complicated, but I think that there is a fine line between encouraging appropriate dress and punishing young women for being “sexy.”

Read more: Traditional gender roles: Boys will be boys>

This isn’t Victorian England. If boys and, especially, teachers are distracted by the sight of bra straps, perhaps they need to deal with their own issues instead of telling girls that they can’t wear racer back tank tops.

Shaming girls for wearing bras or short skirts in hot weather plays very well into a culture that humiliates girls for how they look, and stereotypes boys as being unable to control their impulses.

Dare I go a step further and say that these rules play into rape culture by codifying outdated stereotypes of both genders’ sexuality? Or perhaps we all just need to simmer down, the heat may be getting to everybody.

Read more: Why #YesAllWomen matters to parents>

It’s hard to imagine any woman getting through the summer without wearing tank tops. In fact, I just brought a pretty colour bra so when my bra straps are showing, they look good. Perhaps, I would be sent home too.

Both girls and boys need to know what is appropriate dress and behaviour in an educational setting. But it has to be done in a thoughtful way. I’m not sure what the lesson the kids in Labrador learned now that their dress code is all over the news.

But I doubt it is about respect.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.  

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