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High School Crop-Top Dress Codes Send the Message That School Is for Boys

Dress codes focus primarily on girls' bodies, but young women across Canada are mobilizing to fight the sexist policies.

by Sarah Ratchford
May 29 2015, 4:00pm

Alexi Halket. Photo by Charlie Reynolds

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

When I was in ninth grade, I dressed up as a "hippie" for Halloween. My version of that was floral bellbottoms, a matching fringed vest, about five pounds of thrift-store jewelry, and a white crop top.

It took the vice principal until second period to sniff me out. She intercepted me between classes and hustled me into her office. She told me the outfit was distracting to boys, and I would have to go home and change.

I raised one brow and pressed her on it. I said something to the effect of, "A sliver of skin on my belly is distracting? Why?" She said yes, it was. She didn't say why. "Bra straps, too," she added. Hopes dashed and costume now ruined, I borrowed somebody's hoody and went about my day. I saw no other choice.

That was 13 years ago, and absolutely nothing has changed. Schools across Canada are operating the same way. This week, an Etobicoke School of the Arts student was yanked into her own vice principal's office to have that very same conversation I was forced to have so long ago. Alexi Halket spent 90 minutes in the office in a back-and-forth about her clothing, when presumably she attended school that day in the hopes of learning something other than which sartorial choices are deemed "appropriate" by her elders. According to the school's behavior, the top she chose to wear was more important than the development of her young brain.

Predictably, the internet blew up over it, and on Tuesday, hundreds of young girls and women in Toronto stormed their schools in crop tops of their own.

Young women are mobilizing, but schools have been slow on the uptake. They're still viewing young women's bodies as hazards to the learning environment. Dress codes still routinely state that tops should have backs and fronts, completely covering undergarments, waists, and shoulders. Skirts must fall at mid thigh or below.

Young women are sick of this bullshit, and with due cause. This relentless prosecution of women for their personal sartorial choices sends the message that school is for boys, and that girls are welcome to attend if, and only if, they do not distract those rightful occupiers of the classroom. We are treated like children in restaurants: we can be there if we're on our best behavior, but one false move and we're swiftly deported from the scene, animal crackers and Crayolas flying. Our presence in schools is conditional, and we are still an afterthought.

But the backlash from teens is growing as online activism extends to real life, and feminism faces a new epoch (and maybe even a new wave). This discussion is making headlines every few weeks. Girls are being labeled as wicked jezebels and temptresses for wearing yoga pants or tank tops, and more young women are getting sick of the creepy, if not outright dangerous, sexualization of their bodies by teachers who are two or three times their age. They're tired of their bodies being policed so that boys can be "protected" from being forced to behave like leering predators. So they're speaking up and declaring to their schools that they will dress their bodies as they see fit.

Lauren Wiggins, an 18-year-old from Moncton, made all of the headlines a couple of weeks ago when she wrote a letter to her vice principal and was subsequently suspended. She said it best when she said to her school's designated disciplinarian:

"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 and practice self-control."

And in Fredericton, young feminists have made major strides. Fredericton High School students were suspended after protesting the dress code, but that led to the creation of a new, district-wide sexual assault policy.

The storyline my vice principal gave back in the early 2000s, though, is one people in her shoes are still giving today: that school prepares kids for adult life in an office (because all adults work in an office) and that as such, anything that wouldn't be deemed appropriate in an office should also be outlawed in the hallowed walls of a school. K, perfect! Let's teach kids everything about the exclusionary practices of capitalism, and nothing at all about body ownership!

One would be hard-pressed to find a high school in this country that does not have something to say against the sporting of tube tops or spaghetti straps. And boys are prohibited from wearing these things, too. They're also prohibited from wearing hats at some schools, or showing their boxers over their jeans.

But how many dudes get shirtless in gym class, or out on the soccer field in the spring? Are young men really going to be chastised for showing up to gym class in a muscle shirt? This, friends, is what we call a sexist policy. If girls can be blamed for "distracting" boys with their bodies, is it a far cry for them to be blamed for being raped or sexually assaulted?

These clearly sexist dress codes are symptomatic of a much bigger cultural problem, of course. We force women to be viewed through a sexual lens, and then we blame them for it. Adult teachers see 15-year-old girls' yoga-pantsed butts as sexy, and rather than viewing that as completely fucking disgusting, we view it as sensible and righteous.

Further, we're shaming sexuality as a whole by telling boys they should never have sexual thoughts about girls, and for telling girls they need to cover up in order to avoid provoking the boys. It's normal for most adolescents to have sexual feelings. Rather than avoiding the issue by shaming them for those feelings, schools should be teaching young people to express their sexuality in a respectful way.

No wonder the majority of adults I know have issues with sex.

Teachers and vice principals: you guys should really spend some time googling "rape culture" this summer, and stop telling girls they're doing something inherently wrong by being young, carefree, and dressed comfortably for warm weather.

In the meantime, girls: own yourself. Don't be afraid to be right just because your foe is older or more powerful than you.

And rock. That. Crop top.

Follow Sarah Ratchford on Twitter.

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let's teach kids everything about the exclusionary practices of capitalism