Body-Shaming? Or Education-Honouring?

It’s back-to-school time and, for many Canadian pupils, it’s back to the demands of school dress codes.

Not just in private schools, but in many public schools, dress codes are in force. And you can bet that in a week or two, there will be at least one sensational news story of a teenage girl being sent home for showing too much of this or that in contravention of such a code.

University of Calgary education professor Diane Gereluk points out that dress codes can be complex and problematic. In particular, they are often, even typically, gendered—requiring more (clothing) of girls than of boys. They can insist on impractical traditions—such as skirts (again, only for girls) even on Canadian winter days. And by distinguishing uniforms for one sex versus the other, they now run afoul of progressive concerns about gender identity and expression.

Professor Gereluk also discusses religiously mandated clothing as well, an important topic deserving its own treatment. Today, though, let’s talk about the most frequent criticism of dress codes: they promote shame of the body. Professor Gereluk writes:

“Tank tops, spaghetti straps, bare shoulders, cleavage or no cleavage, shorts that are too short, midriff, shirts/pants regulations are indicative of the multiple infractions that shame girls…. Many dress codes point to the assumption that girls’ bodies should be covered. The infractions for noncompliance exacerbate the shaming of girls’ self-perception of their worth. And yet it points to the basic assumption that girls’ bodies are shameful — something that is to be covered, evaluated or objectified.”

Well, that’s one (wrong) way to look at it. It might be true in some other cultures, but in this culture, the problem is not that girls’ bodies are shameful, it is that they can be distracting. And in an educational institution, distractions are properly kept to a minimum.

Let’s make clear also that this isn’t just a girl-boy dynamic. Yes, boys are distracted by girls’ appearance, but so are girls. In fact, my spies in Girl Culture tell me that girls pay far more attention to each other’s appearance than do at least most boys. Dress codes put limits on “competitive dressing,” particularly drawing a line regarding just how sexily young female scholars will be allowed to dress when everyone at school is supposed to be focused on . . . school.

Some critics might blame Canada’s Christian heritage for prudish and even misogynistic attitudes toward girls’ bodies. There is, of course, more than a little substance to that accusation, since the history of Christianity, like that of many other religions, has a strain of asceticism that can include positive hatred of the body—and fear of women’s bodies as especially powerful temptations to men.

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