Calgary students call dress codes sexist, unfair toward girls487 views
As Calgary students question school dress codes — calling them vague, inconsistent and sexist toward girls — education leaders agree aspects of the policies need to be reviewed to uphold more respectful attitudes.
Students at Jack James High School recently held a series of protests, calling the school’s dress codes unfair and open to interpretation by different teachers, depending on their personal values.
Since the Calgary Board of Education doesn’t have a system-wide dress code listing what students can or cannot wear, schools create policies of their own, usually found in the student handbook.
But at Jack James, students are only told they are “expected to dress in appropriate clothing” that is “suitable for an indoor work environment” and “promotes safety and security of the building.”
Students say the result has been unfair, sexist and highly inconsistent interpretations of a dress code that is unclear. Many say that girls, for instance, are often sent home for wearing the same thing for which boys are left alone, leaving female students feeling sexualized and treated unfairly.
“We can’t really dress the way we want, even on a hot day, when it’s hot in the school. We can’t wear tank tops, we can’t wear crop tops and we can’t wear short shorts,” said Alex Fox, a Grade 12 student at Jack James.
“Yet, the guys, they can wear what they want.”
John Friesen, also a Grade 12 student, agreed boys can often wear tank tops to school on a warm day while girls cannot.
“It’s different rules for guys and girls.”
Ivana Baril, a Grade 12 student, said rules are implemented inconsistently, even among different girls wearing similar outfits.
“My friend was wearing a romper that was pretty revealing, and I just had on a tank top. Yet I was told by a teacher that I looked half-naked but they said nothing to my friend,” she said.
Dianne Gereluk, associate dean undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, says schools need to do a much better job of articulating clear and consistent dress code policies.
She says that doesn’t necessarily mean drawing up a list of what is disallowed, which usually ends up being targeted specifically toward girls.
Several Calgary schools, such as Clarence Samson School or St. Mary’s High School for instance, have specific lists of “inappropriate” clothing, including “halter tops,” tops that expose midriffs or “cleavage,” or “bras,” shorts or “skirts” that are shorter than mid-thigh.
“It focuses on the sexualization of girls,” said Gereluk, who wrote a book on dress codes entitled Symbolic Clothing in Schools.
“That’s problematic, it feminizes the girls, it marginalizes them. The focus is that girls should hide their bodies.”
While school officials often say revealing clothing distracts boys and prevents learning, Gereluk says there is no research or evidence stating that certain clothing affects learning in any way.
She argues that schools need to stop assuming that what a girl is wearing is the problem, and should instead address the inappropriate or sexist response to what they are wearing.
Gereluk, who also specializes in social justice and equity in education, explains teachers and female students have been wrestling with appropriate dress for decades, recalling that as recently as the 1960s girls were forbidden from wearing pants, and all skirts had to fall below the knee.
She argues that it’s time schools refrain from disallowing girls to show cleavage or their shoulders, as long as those particular styles are not oppressive.
Schools should instead have clear conversations with students and teachers around what is “oppressive” or does not pose “health and safety” hazards.
“There are all different kinds of tank tops, let’s talk about which ones are appropriate and which ones are oppressive,” Gereluk says.
Dianne Yee, Calgary Board of Education’s area director for Jack James and 43 other schools in the city’s southeast, agrees that dress code policies can be inconsistent.
In fact, she plans on meeting with staff at Jack James and other area schools to discuss evolving expectations around dress codes.
“You can never cover all of the specifics, and lists of inappropriate clothes can tend to point mostly at girls,” Yee said.
“It’s more about having ongoing conversations with students, and understanding what respect and expectations are. We all need to be on the same page.”
Yee added that as our culture evolves, particularly pop culture and fashion trends that teens follow closely, schools need to understand society is becoming less conservative.
Yee also agrees that in the same way any student might wear something inappropriate, another student’s response to someone’s dress might be equally inappropriate.
“If students are feeling distracted when really they shouldn’t be, teachers should also be handling that in a fair way, too.”
Andrea Holowka, superintendent of instructional services for Calgary Catholic School District, said while the district overall encourages respect and dignity in student dress, schools are welcome to set their own standards.