Coming to Terms

Teasing apart the hairball of issues jumbled together in the school dress code issue and its news coverage.


Do you think I look like a hooker?

Wearing knee-high boots, a super short skirt, and a tight, low-cut top, the teenager on the verge of leaving the house for an evening with friends was, of course, deliberately provoking her mother, looking for a reaction to react against. A veteran of the home front, however, her mother missed not a beat as she glanced up from her book and replied calmly before returning to her reading.

No, dear, you look lovely. Just don’t stand around on any street corners.

It’s been 20 years since this cross-generational exchange, but some things never change. As a general rule, teenagers dress more revealingly, more provocatively, than older women. Even than women just slightly older.

Why? There are likely many reasons, but I suspect one is the novelty of being able to display their newly sexually mature bodies in a sexually attractive way.

But whatever the reason, some teenage girls have recently run afoul of school dress codes. The girls, and sometimes their parents, have cast the issue as being about rights — the girls’ right to dress comfortably in hot weather, or to express themselves freely, or not to be seen as sexual objects, or not to be molested. Excluding same-sex attraction from the conversation just for simplicity, let’s look at that jumble of ideas.

Within the limits of the laws on indecent exposure, do women of any age have a right to display themselves in public as they please, whether for physical comfort or psychic satisfaction? Yes.

Do they have the right not to be seen as sexual objects? No, because no one has a right to control what goes on in someone else’s head. Do they have the right not to be treated as sexual objects? Well, it might not be a right, exactly, but it would be nice.

Do they have the right to display themselves without being molested? Yes. There is no style of dress that causes, justifies, or excuses assault.

But in a civil society the conversation doesn’t end with rights, much less with the rights of just one party. In addition to vigilantly insisting on our own rights, we must also respect the rights of others. One school said that it was trying to remove distractions for male students and teachers.

Do male students have a right to attend school without being distracted by women? Do male teachers have a right to a work environment free of sexual distractions? No, because no one has a right to make what goes on between their ears someone else’s responsibility.

Maybe all this talk about rights isn’t like, you know, helpful. Let’s try another approach.

Dress is more than personal, it’s situational. Rights aside, most adults dress in part based on where they are: a beach, a downtown street, a concert hall, the backyard, a golf course, an office, a bar. They dress in part based on what they are doing: swimming or just beach-walking; performing on a stage or being an audience member; working as a professional golfer or as a caddie; playing a sport, watching a sport, or selling refreshments at a sporting event; working in the boiler room or at the reception desk.

Is there more variation now than 50 years ago in what is acceptable in any given place? Yes. Does the balance between personal and situational shift, depending on the situation? Yes. But do adults find a style of dress that works for most, most of the time? Yes, again. It’s just one part — and not a very big part, at that — of being a functioning member of our society.

Maybe the young women afflicted by what they see as an unfair dress code can reframe this from ‘rights’ to something a little less contentious. Maybe they can come to terms with a different style of dress for school than on the beach, in the mall, or at a party.

Maybe the schools involved can rethink their dress code rationale to find something a little less contentious, and stop suggesting that young women are responsible for men’s sexual feelings and mental focus. As they struggle to define school-appropriate attire in an admittedly fluid environment, maybe they can come to terms with the fact that no solution will be perfect and that’s not anyone’s fault.

And maybe, just maybe, they can all grow up, just a little.

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14 Responses to Coming to Terms

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I wonder where this business of “rights” got started. I don’t recall any of Dickens’ characters demanding, “I got rights, y’know.” John Diefenbaker wasn’t smart enough to have started the trend with his Bill of Rights, so he must have borrowed it from somewhere.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I don’t know where “rights” got started, either – not in my childhood home, that’s for sure! I seem to remember more about “responsibilities.” Of course, it’s not a case of one place on the continuum being “right” (best?), but using the one perspective to leaven the other, or so it seems to me.

  2. Alison says:

    The problem doesn’t go away in Jr or Sr High school. We have University OT students, who come to their practicum wearing low cut tops, bare midriffs, you name it. As professionals, working closely with clients, we (their supervisors) take exception to it. Is it just because we’re “old school”? I don’t know, but seems to me, there is something about “being appropriate to the situation”. Wow! I think I sound like my father! (I remember as a teen having to own something to wear that he considered “appropriate” for family outings)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yes, cleavage at work does seem a bit oblivious, but I know from others who’ve had to struggle with office dress codes that it isn’t easy, whether the issue is defining inappropriate display or inappropriate casualness. As for your father, good for him for introducing you to the notions of “appropriate” as well as “family outings”! The things we take for granted, eh?

  3. You raise many points to debate. I will pick up just one thread: the Canadian Bill of Rights enacted under the Diefenbaker government in 1960 was superseded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, one of which rights is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a fair trial. The present rape and assault legislation allows women to bring charges of assault without proof, negating the possibility of a fair trial and assuring the assumption of guilt. As Glen Greenwald mentioned in a recent interview, “You cannot prove a negative.” This situation invites police, lawyers, and judges to make tacit or even unconscious assumptions about “what was happening” in the mind of the accused male, however unjustly he may have been accused, and they do so on the basis of casual observations as to what they assume motivated the allegations: the prettiness of the woman, her tone of voice, tears, how she appears, a bruise that actually is proof of her assault but not according to her claim, and what she is or is not wearing. But also assumptions based on the shabby clothing of an impoverished and increasingly disillusioned male, despite his facial and neck bruises, deep scratches, a blood clot in his eye, and clothing soaked in his blood. I have witnessed police making assumptions about the thought processes of a lesbian; assumptions about the claims of drunken and psychotic women; assumptions about the thought processes of males that could be based only on their dress and hairstyles. Three times my husband and I have struggled to find the means to hire lawyers to defend innocent men although “you cannot prove a negative.” Thus, these men are left with onerous sentences, blighted employment prospects, dreadful interruptions to their parenting, a tremendous waste of their time in mandated jail time and reformative courses, economic disaster, and further social marginalization. They are vilified for former substance abuse, although they have made strides towards abstinence. In essence, no one is listening to them, caring about violence against them (whether from women or police), or supporting them with an objective point of view. As long as legislation stands that should be repealed because it is in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, women with the co-operation of the police can wreck havoc on innocent men with false allegations and by drawing on random social associations; and they are doing so with impunity. Men’s organizations are forming in their defense. The Toronto Star ran a series on aspects of this travesty a couple of weeks ago. The way women and men dress ought not to have anything to do with legal rights, but perhaps the way they undress should; the fact of the present situation is that they do and such personal impressions are being used in highly manipulative ways in our legal system. I think it is naive to imagine clothing or lack thereof can ever be removed from interpersonal reactions, both physiological and social; finding legal means of containment of human reactivity certainly is challenging. The John Howard Society and the Canadian Civil Rights Association are calling for the repeal of the rape law. Perhaps equitable legislation would make responsible young women rethink their fashion statements, because the Everlasting No of the male protagonist in Sartor Resartus is one natural outcome of their present freedoms. While our youngest son is in jail for a month, we are praying for an Everlasting Yea.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I have left your comment as is because to edit it would disrupt the chain of your argument. Dress (or undress) cannot justify assault of a victim; neither should dress/appearance of either party to a claim of assault justify the assumption of guilt or the overlooking of evidence contrary to that claim. Yet of course all players in the justice system bring their biases to the table and it would, indeed, be naive to expect otherwise. Legislation as well as police and court procedures must support fair trials. Without knowing any of the facts behind the cases you cite, I cannot respond more usefully than that, but I wish you, your husband, and your son a just and speedy outcome.

  4. Thank you for pouring Grace on my rant, Isabel. I should be writing a muckraker novel, not venting my frustration in polite company. I should have referenced “A sweet disorder in dress” or The Rape of the Lock rather than one of the most ponderous works in English to delve into the psychology and morality of clothing—although I have an appreciation for Carlyle that escaped me as a student. I thought I could fairly adopt the label of “Christian feminist.” However, “equal” should not mean “payback time.” I hope others will welcome organizations forming to alter this legislation that unjustly deprives boys and men of their civil rights.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I empathize with mothers of sons on many fronts, but I can only imagine the pain of having a son falsely accused, with grandchildren caught in the snarl. I wish all of you all the best.

  5. Sid & Lorraine says:


    As usual I enjoyed reading your writing and the replies.
    Keep up the great work.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Sid – Many thanks. I, too, find the replies interesting. One never knows where a given piece will take a reader.

  6. M.McQuillan says:

    As Helen Keller said: “When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim on them.

    If following a restrictive dress code worked, than the women in Arab countries who have to cover up by law would not get assaulted by males; but they still do.
    As soon as society allows the blaming of the victim, then it is easy to blame those Indian girls for going out to relieve themselves, rather than holding it in all night. It does not matter how they were dressed, the outcome was still that certain males feel entitled to abuse so-called low caste females, and see it as their rights over those whom they have deemed to be lesser people.
    As soon as you label a woman or girl in a low-cut blouse as a slut, you’ve opened the door to blame for any assault that is directed at her. Shouldn’t we “blame” the clothing designers who are always accused of selling sex?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      M. McQuillan – Indeed, I don’t think we can make much progress (not in a direction we want, anyway) by covering women up so they don’t attract men. This is to make women responsible for men – what they feel, think, and do. That’s clearly not on. A short step back from that is to acknowledge both that a woman has a right to dress as she pleases, but that certain styles are not always prudent. Again, this treats men as hapless receptors of stimuli. So I think we want to find a place where we don’t make it about rights; where we just acknowledge that not all styles of dress are appropriate in all places. In a restaurant, I don’t want to sit next to a guy in a Speedo and a gal in a bikini, although I’m good with that on the beach. Whether that means that it’s OK to show bra straps at school (or not), well, I dunno. But making it about rights, and sexual objectification, and male distraction puts too much on it, it seems to me. As for what happened to those young women in India, it is an abomination and I hope they treat it as such.

  7. Gary Cerantola says:

    It’s a zero sum game. As one freedom is given another is taken away.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Gary – Yes, we do tend to bump up against each other in an interactive (and complex) society, so it stands to reason that our freedoms might impinge on each other. Heck, my own personal freedoms can’t all be satisfied simultaneously – the freedom to sit and eat sort of being at odds with freedom from chronic conditions (although maybe those are “wants”, not freedoms exactly). As with “rights,” I’m not sure it’s helpful language/perspective, but I’m not entirely sure what to put in its place!

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