Meet The Junior High Riot Grrrls Fighting Back Against School Dress Code
Last Wednesday, May 6, a school announcement at Beaconsfield Junior High in St. John’s declared all students must wear clothing that covers their knees and shoulders. As one Grade 9 student, Sydney, recounted, the announcement targeted women, “What they said is “I don’t want to see bra straps, I don’t want to see your underwear girls.” Mya Bixby chimed in, “Nothing else for the guys. Guys go around showing their butts out of their pants and that’s completely ok.” Cindy agreed, “There’s one guy who takes off his shirt everyday and no one really talks to him about it.”
Hey, look. Another example of an authority figure regulating female bodies to preserve their decency and protect boys from temptation.
The day before, the city finally got some warm weather and students dressed appropriately. One girl, Emily Hennebury, was wearing a dress with slits in the sides, and was called to the office, almost sent home, because of it. “Lots of students have almost gotten in trouble for [their clothes],” Erica told me, implying these students have been taken aside and questioned on their fashion choices.
Emily was told to put on a sweater several times, while others were told to pull their dress or skirt down. Other students changed during the day from their dress to leggings suggesting they were asked to change or felt pressured to.
These rules even apply in gym class, where girls must wear t-shirts and leggings or shorts that reach their knees. As Emily pointed out, “It’s a big deal because you go to a store now, and shorts are up to here [at the top of the thigh], not down to here [past the knee]. No one gets shorts that come down past your knees.” Because she did not have ‘appropriate’ clothing for gym, Daneka was forced to attend a different class, removing her from her peers and opportunity for physical activity.
Clothing is a cultural phenomenon that youth are immersed in. Fashion today is tighter, it shows off our legs and shoulders, and we are comfortable doing so. We do not feel ashamed of our bodies, and we do not feel the need to hide them. We wear what we want and we should not be chastised for this.
In protest of the new regulations, boys and girls arrived at school on Thursday showing skin. They wore tank tops and short skirts to show the school they would wear what they wanted. They put up hundreds of posters to tell the school why their dress code was wrong. They also started an online petition that you can sign here too.
The teachers made their anger known. Earlier that day, Emily was asked by a teacher to remove a poster.
“He said ‘Come here. Take it down.’ I was like ‘No. You want it taken down, you can take it down’ and he ripped it off the wall.”
By the time I arrived around noon, the few posters remaining were congregated in the female safe haven, aka the girls bathroom. Emily told me how they were plastered all over the front of the school, until one boy ran by and tore them all down.
When this boy approached our group, he was greeted with boos and anger from the girls I spoke with. He was sympathetic to their cause but didn’t understand it. “I am not against it. It’s just funny that you guys are making a big deal over clothes.” To which Emily aptly replied, “We’re not overreacting. We’re trying to get the right to wear what we want to wear.”
Other boys got it though. As one sporting his shirt tucked in Britney-Spears-style commented “I think [the dress code] is pretty stupid actually. They should be able to wear whatever they want. I’m dressed like a girl and they wouldn’t send me home for this, but they’d send her home for it.”
Growing up in a hypersexualized world, bombarded with images of celebrities in skimpy outfits, dress codes targeting shoulders were ridiculed. As Daneka put it, “I could understand them having a dress code but shoulders and knees are ridiculous.” Erica pointed out, “Everybody knows that we wear bras so I don’t see the big deal.”
Creating clothing policies that target young girls is sexist and heteronormative. Placing the blame on girls for the behaviour of boys teaches both sexes that girls must behave a certain way to appease the uncontrollable passions of straight boys. The logical conclusion of this is catcalling, sexual assault, and rape as boys are taught that unless girls are completely covered their bad behaviour is acceptable and girls are “asking for it.”
This disgusting motive derives from a systemic belief that women are sexual objects for men to use. Hundreds of years of patriarchy in Canada are testament to the fact that clothing is not a factor in this. Whether women are wearing long-sleeved, floor-length dresses or crop tops and short shorts, they have been victim to violent treatment from men.
As Daneka bravely put it, “I’ve hated my body for the longest time and now I feel comfortable in my body, but I can’t wear what I want.” Instead of educating these youth, they are being taken out of class by teachers shaming their bodies.
Daneka told me one teacher referred to these young girls as sluts. Others huffed at them, or gave them dirty looks, thus compromising their learning environment.
Staff denied my request for an interview.
First of all, calling someone a slut because of the way dress and putting negative connotations on promiscuous behaviour is the definition of slut shaming and it is not ok. We cannot expect that these young girls will get married straight after high school and lead monogamous lives. It is perfectly ok to sleep around with whoever you want, as long as it is consensual and fun. Teaching these girls that being a slut is indecent reinforces backwards patriarchal views that women don’t have sexual desires while men are free to throw their dick around wherever they please.
Secondly, if teachers are making snide remarks and instilling unfriendly environments in the classroom, they are creating negative connotations of school for these girls. If these girls are made to feel uncomfortable at school, they run the risk of losing interest, and deciding not to pursue their education afterwards. Post-secondary education is vital to a prosperous career and all students must be encouraged to continue their education after high school.
Finally, dress codes that target young girls for showing skin tells these girls that their bodies are inherently sexual and in order to command respect, they must be covered up. If girls are told their bodies are more sexual than boys, they will begin to look at their bodies through the lens of boys. Self-objectification emerges, which endangers their mental health. Women are already faced with enough impossible beauty ideals that create insecurity and anxiety, further teaching them that their outfits must also be to the approval of men increases these self-deprecating thoughts.
These dress codes teach boys that girls are sexual without context, and that revealing their skin makes them lesser, permitting men to disrespect women. By putting the onus for proper behaviour on women, men are taught their bad behaviour is justified if a woman is not completely covered up. These dress codes present boys as horny monsters, who can’t help themselves and must be protected from their passions. The emphasis on girls covering themselves up for boys is a classic example of rape culture, where female fashion choices are interpreted as them “asking for it” when they are sexually assaulted by men who are taught they cannot control themselves.
By calling females distracting, we are also assuming that females are not distracted. The teenage years are rife with hormones and changing bodies, and girls are thinking about sex too. Instead of pretending that this can be stopped by wearing baggy clothing, we should teach these teenagers the rules of proper sexual conduct, ie consent & lots of foreplay.
Smaller clothing is more comfortable and stylish in the summer. Crop tops are in. Dresses with slits are cool. Short, summer dresses are cute. You can’t even buy shorts that cover up your whole thigh. Teenage girls are going to wear what’s fashionable and rules expecting them to shop at old lady stores are outdated and perpetuate patriarchy.
Public schools exist to educate, not regulate, our bodies. If these students feel comfortable in their outfits, it is not up to a principle to tell them how to dress. As Daneka so bravely said, “It’s unreasonable for us not to show our bodies. Teachers are going around ripping down our posters and stuff, it’s not going to help. If you keep doing that, we’re still just going to fight back.”
Girls don’t need your approval to dress how they like. Girls are not made sluts by their outfits. Slut is a state of mind that should not be stamped on young girls. Forget your backwards beliefs and let’s educate our youth right. Let’s teach our girls and boys that their bodies are beautiful and to treat each other with respect. Always.