Every spring, in every high school in which I taught, the question of dress codes came up. Invariably, there would be a few minor rules for boys, and a ton of restrictions for girls. The discussion was always draped in the vagueness of appeals to “appropriateness”. “Appropriate for what?” I would always ask. And then I would be treated as if I were too stupid to understand the issue. Perhaps the most discouraging comment I would get would be “Would you want your daughter dressed like that at school?” To which I would reply, I do not want other people deciding how I should raise my children. My wife and I will be the judges of what we deem appropriate for our children. This was rarely heard or understood. And so, year after year, the schools would put out stupid, unenforceable, female-unfriendly dress codes. Apparently it was believed that girls have some sort of responsibility to ensure that boys aren’t distracted. Aside: The discussions were invariably about heterosexual attraction. Curious.
All of this brings me to Ms. Lauren Wiggins at Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, New Brunswick. Ms. Wiggins, only a few days shy of her 18th birthday, was given a detention for breaking the school dress code, and then was given a one-day suspension after writing a letter of complaint to the vice-principal. (Which, if the fact are as reported, is a completely separate outrage.) While not the central issue, I cannot for the life of me fathom what is wrong with the dress in the picture. What kind of bizarre dress code could this be? Are the thin pink straps beyond the pale? Good grief! But I digress. Let’s give Lauren the podium for a moment. From her Facebook page.
Today I received a detention because the outfit I am wearing is considered inappropriate and a sexual distraction to the young men in my school. Enough is enough. I’m tired of the unjust standards that we as women are held up to. I’m tired of the discrimination against our bodies, and I’m absolutely fed up with comments that make us feel like we can’t be comfortable without being provocative. It’s time to change the world’s mindset. Now.
What really blows my mind is that some people can’t see how absolutely right Lauren Wiggins is. School is not church. School is not a jobsite. School is not your or my home. School is a place where people go to learn. In fact, for most of their school lives, they are obliged to go there to learn. What they wear should be consistent with learning. Period. So what does this mean? Clothing needs to be safe. If you are in physical education, or a foods lab, or chemistry, or automotive class, then your clothing (and hair and gloves, etc.) has to be appropriate to the tasks at hand. You cannot legitimately endanger yourself or others. Your clothing has to be consistent with the well-being and dignity of others. Schools can legitimately restrict words and symbols on clothing that are hateful or harmful to others. This is usually not clear-cut and wisdom and patience will be required. But bare shoulders or legs or what-have-you do not fall into this category. Person A may believe that no one should have bare shoulders in public, but this is not binding on Person B. Sometimes we have to tolerate what others do, even if we don’t like it. But the big story is the school’s regulation of female sexuality. It is condescending and patriarchal to declare female arms and legs unfit for the public, while ignoring the same in males. As Lauren Wiggins wrote to the school’s assistant principal, Mr. Sturgeon:
If you are truly so concerned that a boy in this school will get distracted by my upper back and shoulders then he needs to be sent home [to] practice self-control.
I couldn’t agree more, Ms. Wiggins.