Stop Sexualizing My Daughters With Your Dress Code

I know that what I’m about to write could be controversial, but I think this is too important an issue for me to shy away from.  I want to be very clear that what I post on my personal blog is a reflection of who I am and my own personal values.  It is not a reflection of the beliefs and values of my employer or any group or committee I represent in my professional career.  This blog is mine.  This opinion is mine.

I also want to say that if you are a kid who has happened upon this I’d like you to stop reading.  Go get your parent or guardian and ask them to read it instead.  This post is about you, our children, but I want the adults in your life to determine if the message I am relaying today is a message they agree with and want to share with you.  It is not my call to make.  It is theirs.

It has been my intention with this blog to focus only on writing and to leave my kids out of it, to leave the challenges of parenting out of it, and to avoid any rants about a topic that has provoked me out of it.  Sorry, I tried, but I just can’t bite my tongue on this and I’m not being very authentic if I try to so please bare with me.  Welcome to the real me.

Last night my daughters, aged 10 and 12, and two of their friends, also aged 10 and 12, were at my house preparing for their elementary school dance.   My house was filled with giggles and laughter as they got ready.  Hair was curled.  Glitter and nail polish was applied.  They were happy, beautiful, innocent, and beaming.  Photos were taken.  Great memories were made.  It was the type of moment I was thankful to have and I remember wishing that I could just bottle it up and keep it forever because they are growing up so fast and nearing an age that scares me to death.  An age when they’ll want their independence, will make me feel like everything I do as a parent is wrong, and an age where they may find themselves in situations where even the values they’ve been taught may not be enough to keep them safe in our current society.

I dropped the girls off at the dance, whined about the fact it is mid-April and the weather forecast was calling for snow, and returned home to check my Facebook account.  On Facebook I read several articles about recent tragedies involving young teenage girls from here in Nova Scotia, other parts of Canada, and the US who have been sexually assaulted and/or exploited online by young boys that resulted in devastating consequences, social isolation, depression, and in both cases here in Canada, suicide.  I don’t think there’s a parent in Nova Scotia right now who doesn’t feel emotionally raw and left wondering what to do or how to make this stop.

How do we prevent this from happening again?  How do we support all the other girls who are living the exact same nightmare as these girls right now?  How do I make sure that in 3-5 years that isn’t my daughter or your son?

So, I returned to the elementary school to pick the girls up from the dance.  When I arrived, I noticed our daughters’ friend out in the hallway.  She wasn’t in the gym with the other girls.  She looked at me as though she wanted to tell me something, but I was too far away, stuck in a crowd of parents.  I sensed something was wrong.  A few minutes later the other three girls came out of the gym.  Their facial expressions and the fact they were dragging me away from the school as fast as they could confirmed that something had obviously happened.  Little girl drama, I thought.  Maybe a fight, maybe their crush wasn’t there, or maybe he was there, but didn’t talk to them or likes someone else.  Who knows. Those were the problems I was expecting.  I was wrong.

The problem was that one of the girls, a ten year old in grade 4, who was dressed in a sweet little white dress with colourful zig-zag stripes was pulled aside by teachers during the dance and told she had to wear a sweatshirt because her dress was sleeveless.  She was in the hall when I came to pick her up because it was too hot to dance in a sweatshirt.  Her night had been ruined and all of the girls were upset.

My initial reaction  was, right, there’s a school dress code that says children can’t wear anything strapless, with spaghetti straps, or open in the back.  Crap, I should have caught that.

Then I thought again.

Then I got angry.  I want to be very clear that I’m not at all angry with the teachers involved in this.  They were doing their job and following a school policy that they are required to enforce.

I am angry about the message such a school policy sends to our daughters and our sons and to society in general.  I want to know why.

Why is it deemed inappropraite for an elementary school girl to wear a dress that is sleeveless?  Why is it deemed inappropriate for an elementary school girl to wear a shirt with spaghetti straps?  Why is it deemed inappropriate for an elementary school girl to wear an article of clothing that has an open back?  WHY?

Are you concerned that the straps will break or that her top will fall down?  If so, why isn’t there a policy that prevents the boys from wearing gym pants with elastic waist bands?  You never know when an elastic could pop so it seems equally risky.

How do you determine what width of a strap is appropriate vs inappropriate?  Is there a specific guide that demonstrates evidence that one width is better than the other?  If so, I’d like to see it.  We live in Canada so I’m assuming when you get out your ruler to measure it will be in centimeters, not inches.  Correct?

Is there any evidence to support that failure of a girl to have her shoulders, neck or back covered in a public, non-denominational school impacts their ability to learn?  Is there any evidence to support it impacts anyone else’s ability to learn, the teacher’s ability to teach, the prinicpal’s ability to administer the school, the secretary’s ability to answer the phone, the janitor’s ability to keep the school clean, or the cafeteria worker’s ability to provide meals to students?  If so, where is the policy that requires all elementary school aged boys to tuck in their shirts to ensure that while they’re upside down on the monkey bars their shirts don’t ride up?  After all, if this policy is based on such evidence who knows what could happen if their bellies or backs were to stick out.

Well, here’s a shocker.  I’ve looked for research and evidence to support those theories and I’ve yet to find any so what other reason could possibly exist for such a policy?  Why does this little school of less than 500 students from grades primary to six in rural Nova Scotia feel the need to protect its students (and possibly staff) from the shoulders, necks and backs of its little girls?

If you tell me it’s because it presents a poor image, the clothes are perceived as inappropriate, too sexy, or too provocative I suggest you stand back because I just may need to slap you despite the fact I am not a violent person nor am I someone who condones violence.  If that’s the reason for this policy then I think our daughters and sons are doomed.

I recognize that our children live in a society that subjects them to sexual images, lyrics, and marketing all the time.  I believe wholeheartedly that the people who developed the school’s dress code probably felt this policy was a way to somehow take a stand against these things and their intentions were good.  All the same, as a parent I can’t stand by and support a policy that makes a little ten year old girl feel like she’s done something wrong simply because she wore a sundress given to her by her grandmother that happened to have no sleeves.  A dress her mother, an intelligent, well-respected member of our community felt was appropriate for her to wear to a school dance.  A dress, that I didn’t even question or think twice about when dropping her off last night.

As a parent, I feel it is my responsibility to teach my daughters to be resilient.  I believe that if they are going to survive this world they need to be taught how to respond to what they are exposed to and ask questions, not be hidden from them.  When we watch tv and the rice commercial with a woman in a bra walking around comes on I don’t flick the station, I ask them if seeing a woman in a bra makes them want to buy rice.  They look at me as though I’m an idiot and that tells me that I’m on the right track.  I can’t protect them from the world.  I can only do my best to help them decipher the messages they get and I don’t like the message this dress code sends any more than I like the messages that Victoria Secret’s new underwear line targeted at tweens sends.

I refuse to support a school policy that, intended or not, sexualizes my daughters or their classmates in any way.  I cannot support a policy that implies that it is inappropriate for a girl to wear a sleeveless dress, spaghetti straps, or something with an open back because it is perceived in some twisted way by someone as being sexual.  Those are the exact type of messages that have created the culture that make some young men feel they have the right to sexually assault our teenaged daughters, post humiliating photos of them online, and think it is alright.  Those are the messages that make some people feel the clothes the victim was wearing somehow meant they were asking for it and sometimes makes the victim feel that way themselves.  Those are the exact types of messages that cause other girls to stand back and judge each other, calling each other names when they should be standing solidarily  supporting each other.

Covering our daughters’ shoulders and backs isn’t going to protect them or teach our sons to be respectful of girls’ bodies.  Teaching them to be respectful of one another, regardless of what they are wearing, is a good place to start.

I think as parents and society in general we really need to step back and rethink some of the policies and norms that we are expected to accept and follow and start asking why?  Are they based on evidence or just good intentions?  More importantly, do they send the right messages to our children?

I will be contacting the school on Monday to express my concerns and to ask why.  I hope some of you feel inclined to do the same.

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