Last week, it was reported that a high school in New Zealand called an assembly to discuss uniforms and dress codes. There, the school’s deputy principal told young female students that the hemlines of their skirts were too high, and that they were required to lower them to knee length. According to the students, this was to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff.”
Current students and members of the school’s alumni were quick to criticise the deputy principal’s speech, deeming it inappropriate to allow the school’s rules to promote the sexualisation of young girls’ knees – girls “that aren’t even legal to have sex.” The rules in question include a stipulation stating that female students’ skirts must fall below the knee to ensure that “all students can focus on their learning and feel comfortable in the school environment.” However, the deputy principal’s comments would suggest that this restriction is less about making everybody feel comfortable, and more about making sure that girls make sure that boys feel comfortable… Oh, and fully grown men too.
Speaking to press in New Zealand, one student claimed that the issue was not so much with the rules themselves, but with the fact that they were targeting girls specifically. Which makes sense considering the assembly seemingly had absolutely nothing to do with teaching young boys not to objectify young girls, or getting rid of staff who already do. Let’s forget for a second (if we can) that there’s an explicit suggestion here that the male teachers in this school can’t help but prey on their students because their skirts might be a bit too short, and consider the fact that Henderson High aren’t just sexualising their underage female students, but they’re blaming them for this sexualisation too. Boys “get ideas” because they’re boys, and that’s entirely the girls’ fault.[pullquote] Boys “get ideas” because they’re boys, and that’s entirely the girls’ fault.[/pullquote]
Unfortunately, what happened last week in New Zealand is not an isolated incident. Social media is consistently awash with news stories, Facebook statuses, and blog posts detailing how young girls were sent home from school because their slacks were too tight, their skirts didn’t trail along the pavement, or because they wore leggings that one time.
Just yesterday, administration at Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes were accused of body-shaming their female students when over 20 girls were turned away at the school gates for dressing ‘inappropriately.’ According to the school’s Headteacher Tracey Jones, they were protecting “girls who are not very slim against bullying” … By sending those girls home because their clothes were not as loose fitting as their peers’.
Jones went on to say that the school’s dress code has been in place for many years. It doesn’t just exist to make a good impression and to uphold the school’s reputation, but to ensure that the female students “look demure and modest and not appear over-sexualised” – a statement which has most likely never been uttered concerning the appearance of an underage boy in secondary school. Surely, the solution to children being over-sexualised is to stop over-sexualising children. Not refusing them entry to class because their clothes are a bit too tight.[pullquote]Surely, the solution to children being over-sexualised is to stop over-sexualising children. Not refusing them entry to class because their clothes are a bit too tight.[/pullquote]
While almost all of these examples come from schools where uniforms are compulsory, there have been countless cases of teenage girls being told similar things in high schools all around the US. One student was told her black leggings “may distract young boys.” Another was almost suspended because her barely over the knee skirt was not modest enough. Another was sent home because her collar bones were on show.
No, seriously. Her collar bones.
Just last week, a high school in North Carolina shared a student-made video about what was and what was not ‘suitable’ for girls to wear to prom. The video includes shots of dresses a ‘panel’ deemed appropriate (modest, gown-type outfits) versus dresses they did not (short dresses with low-cut backs). Unsurprisingly, the video paid no attention to whether or not the school’s male students would be “Prom ‘Propriate” or not.
These gross levels of gendered double standards existing around dress codes have been seen time and time again. Sure, boys get sent home from school all the time too, but the reasons behind this rarely have anything to do with sexualisation. Throw a quick search into Google and you’ll see what I mean: Boy gets sent home from school for having a Mohawk. Boy gets sent home from school for wearing a “patriotic t-shirt.” Boy gets sent home from school for literally wearing a pink mankini to a breast cancer fundraiser. While that last one might exist a little more within the realms of sexualisation, according to the principal of that school, the boy was “revealing too much (… but) it’s not a huge issue.”[pullquote]These gross levels of gendered double standards existing around dress codes have been seen time and time again. Sure, boys get sent home from school all the time too, but the reasons behind this rarely have anything to do with sexualisation.[/pullquote]
Collar bones though. That’s a huge issue.
Of course school uniforms and dress codes have a purpose. They are there to promote the integrity of the school, to achieve some sense of conformity, and to ensure that people don’t show up to class in mankinis every day. What they should not be there for is body-shaming young girls, blaming female students for distracting their peers with their knees, or simply shrugging and accepting that male staff members have a natural inclination to sexualise their students.
School is where things get taught. It’s where you learn. It’s where you spend the vast majority of your time as an acne-charged adolescent struggling through puberty and maths and stuff. But if you’re also spending your formative years being told that it’s your fault the boys can’t get their work done – “roll down your skirt or else they’ll all be looking at you, have a little self respect!” – then where do we end up? In a culture that shames grown women for showing skin? A culture that sexualises them when they don’t want to be sexualised and condemns them when they do? A culture that asks exactly what you were wearing when he attacked you?
Wouldn’t that be awful.