Yes, Virginia, feminists do wear miniskirts.

When I was in high school, I was the goodiest of all two-shoes. My marks were in the high 80-90s across the board. I sang in 3 choirs, if you count the children’s church choir I assistant-directed. I played 2 instruments in 3 orchestras, including my school’s professional double quartet. And by professional I mean we played actual paid gigs; the school hired us out to play functions on our own time, earning $500 a pop which went straight into the school’s bank account. But, y’know…happy to oblige, right?

I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t even know what a mary-ju-wanny cigarette looked like, and I didn’t even round first base until I was in university.

When you consider the external pressure of a high-achieving family and an expensive private school education, combined with the internal pressure of a type A perfectionist personality, something’s bound to give, right? On top of that, there were a lot of shitty things going on at my school, some that I was just witness to and others that impacted me personally, and there comes a point when you have to do something to push back.

I directed the majority of my aggression internally, as many of your teenage girls do, but I had one small form of outward rebellion – just one. Every morning I woke up and put on a dark-coloured brassiere before I buttoned up my white oxford shirt. It was my way of subtly flipping off the entire institution. I was well aware that my snazzy undergarments were visible through my uniform shirt, and I loved it.

I wasn’t the only one. There were hundreds of us with our little micro-rebellions – rolled up kilts and rolled down socks; hiding friendship bracelets under our shirtsleeves and concealing polished fingernails in our fists. One student wore a band-aid over a nose piercing for months, ripping it off every day at 3:45 and letting her silver ring breath free. We weren’t trying to impress any boys. There weren’t any boys to impress, unless you count the maintenance guys we used to bum cigarettes from or that computer tech who offered to split a joint with me at a club.

It seemed fitting – the ways that they were screwing me over were well within their framework of rules and policies, and so was this. Trust me. I checked.

By all accounts though, my choice of attire was “unprofessional.” Shouldn’t the school have put a stop to this? Isn’t it their job to teach me to maintain proper decorum? How would I one day find gainful employment if I didn’t even understand how to dress the part?

The thing is – I did understand. Completely. I understood that school was not, in fact, a job. I understood that school was a place where I was expected to study and learn so I could get good marks and go to a good university. I understood that school was a place where I was expected to treat my teachers and fellow students with respect. School may have been a lot of things, but a job it was not; a job, you see, pays you money.

Of course, it being a private school, I also understood that I was required to follow certain standards of dress and accessorizing (uh…none), so I wore all of the uniform pieces that were required of me. I carefully noted, however, the lack of supportive undergarment-related parameters in my school’s Code of Conduct – Uniform Policy, and smiled to myself as I hooked together my navy and white gingham bra.

I also understood jobs. My job at the time was babysitting, of which I did rather a lot, and for that endeavor, I dressed differently – appropriately, one might say, if by appropriately one meant, “Wearing stuff that wouldn’t be damaged while playing with children and was easily laundered.” Obviously, this ruled out my uniform since that blinking kilt had to be ironed within an inch of its life. Word to the wise – if you’re choosing a private school for your daughter, the wider the pleats, the easier the care.

And interestingly enough, I figured all this out by myself. My school didn’t educate me in how to dress appropriately for babysitting. Or for being an auto mechanic. Or a flight attendant. Or a swimming instructor. Or a lawyer. Or a professional beach volleyball player. When I hear people say that students need to dress appropriately at school to prepare them for the standards of dress they will encounter in their workplace, I always wonder, “What kind of workplace?”

At school we sit at a desk and write stuff and sometimes we use computers, so I guess we equate it with an office job and impose or encourage standards similar to what you would find in that environment. But if school is supposed to prepare students for entry into the workforce, why can’t we think outside the cubicle?

Or is it less about clothes and more about teaching students that in the workplace they will be expected to follow instructions, including but not limited to standards of dress. I guess that makes a little more sense, but aren’t there enough rules for them to follow already before clothing even enters into it?

All right – let’s accept for the moment that it *is* the education system’s job to prepare students for the workforce, and that setting and enforcing clear dress codes are one way to do that.  The next issue that we arrive at is the fact that school dress codes are inherently discriminatory, disproportionately singling out women and girls.

With the help of my friend Google, I’ve had a look at some school dress codes in Ontario – elementary and secondary schools in both the public and Catholic boards, and here is what I’ve come up with:

We are fortunate that school dress codes contain helpful, concrete descriptions that can in no way be misconstrued, like “modest,” “respectful,” “respectable,” “inoffensive,” “non-distracting,” “neat,” “appropriate,” “proper,” and “decorous.” Clothing should not, on the other hand, be “distasteful,” “revealing,” “distracting,” “offensive,” or “sexually provocative.”

Well, that should be easy to figure out and to follow, right? No margin for error there! On the off chance that you do have difficulty interpreting the guidelines (or *cough cough* happened to stumble upon a loophole), they often include helpful summary sentences like these:

“All clothes are to be appropriate for the learning environment as deemed so by the staff at the school.”

The Administration reserves the right to decide on appropriate attire.”

Perfect! No matter how iron-clad the rules are, there’s a leetle space for wiggle room in the form of arbitrary judgement.

This one actually acknowledges that different attire is suited to different settings:

“Clothing that may be appropriate at home, at the beach, or at a nightclub may not be appropriate at school.”

Unfortunately, that sentence is preceded by this one:

“All members of the school community must dress in a way consistent with a scholarly tone: dress that reflects personal pride and respect for others.”

A scholarly tone? I’m not sure what that means. Can you elaborate? “Members of the school community are required to be adequately covered to be consistent with a scholarly school tone.”

Scholarly tone = adequately covered = reflecting personal pride and respect for others.

Gotcha. I do apologize to anyone my bare shoulders ever disrespected. Totally my bad.

Not wanting to leave anything up to chance, it gets even more specific: No clothing or accessories which “are unduly distracting, including but not limited to, dress which is sexually provocative, torn or ragged.”

Ah, there’s the rub, right there in black and white:

Sexually provocative = unduly distracting.

This one includes a rationale . Apparently, the dress code contributes

  • to a safer and more secure school policy;
  • to the development of an educational learning environment;

I had no idea that modest dress was safer and more educational. You learn something new every day. Oh, but wait…Something’s coming back to me…Now that I think about it, I do recall hearing something about that back in “How Not To Get Raped 101,” otherwise known as a day in the life of a girl in rape culture.

That very same school concludes with a catchy little slogan just to drive the point home: “Remember: If we can see up it, down it, or through it, then it shouldn’t be worn at school!”

But I’m sure that’s directed at both genders equally…

I’m happy to report that my school took my rebellion in stride. While I happen to know that there were several changes made to the uniform policy after I left, it was never addressed with me, aside from the one teacher who, her clipped English accent dripping with sarcasm, “That’s a very nice checked brarr, Kahryn.”

The lack of reaction was a surprisingly feminist response. They had certainly come a long way from the lines of girls kneeling in the hallways to face the yardstick kilt-measure of my middle school years, and even farther from the “line up and bend over,” bloomer-checks that were rumoured to have been conducted not long before my time.

Why am I telling you all this?

I’m telling you this because it is important to understand that there is a person in those short-shorts or wearing those visible bra-straps, and she doesn’t necessarily lack self-respect or an understanding of appropriate attire.

She may have a stable father figure, or she may not. Her parents probably raised her just fine, or maybe they didn’t, but her clothes don’t tell you anything about that.

She’s not “asking for it.”

She’s not necessarily wearing the only thing she can afford, or she might be, and she might have chosen to wear it anyway, or maybe she wishes she had something different.

She’s not doing it because she enjoys the attention from most of the boys and some of the girls. Or she might be, and that’s her business too. Me, I enjoy attention, so I dye my hair purple, because sadly, the attention I get for showing parts of my body is not what it used to be – “Mommy!! Your breastses are HANGING DOWN!!”

She’s not showing disrespect to her teachers or to her classroom, because how is showing her own skin, or a half-inch wide strip of elasticized fabric, being disrespectful, unless of course we are operating on the premise that a woman’s body or undergarments are somehow offensive?

She’s Just. Wearing. Clothes.

And maybe if we stopped getting our granny panties in a knot about it we could get on with dealing with the far more serious things that teenagers today are dealing with.

Like Bullying.

Mental illness.

Substance use.

Rape and sexual assault.

Academic disengagement.

Unemployment and underemployment.

Perhaps our outrage and our measuring tapes could be put to better use.

 ~ karyn

Maybe it's time to reconsider school dress codes - or at least consider why we have them.

I apologize to anyone my bare shoulders ever disrespected. Totally my bad.

21 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, feminists do wear miniskirts.

  1. Here here! Our clothing, like our size, our skin, our religion, does NOT define us. Great post.
    p.s. I knew ALL I needed to know about your Goody Two-Shoes status when you referred to your grades as your “marks.” 😉

  2. LOVE this deep perspective on dress codes. And I love how you followed the rules and expressed yourself all at the same time. I still cringe when I see young girls in clothes that show as much skin as a bikini-clad, beach-goer, because while that is appropriate at the pool and beach, I just don’t think it should be every day wear.

    But you are right – it’s really none of my business. And how a school decided to respond to a “dress code infraction” is as important (in my mind) as the dress code itself.

    So, now my question is – what do you think of the fashion statement where boys wear pants low enough that we are all treated to an extended view of their underwear? Is that equal to bra straps showing, and should that be specifically included in dress codes – or do we scrap dress codes altogether?

    I’m actually very curious to see how my future self feels about all this when my 3 little girls become teenagers.

    • The whole thing is such a tricky issue, isn’t it? And I don’t have an answer. I would rather see no dress code at all than one that relies on words like “modest” or “respectable,” because they aren’t actually descriptions of clothing but character judgments. If they could include only concrete terms, like “no portion of a students’ (male or female) undergarments or torso should be visible” and “no profanity or depictions that could be categorized as obscene or hateful or discriminatory towards a person or group of people,” and without that “at the discretion of the administration” bit, I would find it a bit easier to swallow.

      I understand school uniforms because they are just that – uniform. The idea is to remove distractions – not in the “distracting the boys” way but in the form of differences – trends, labels, etc. Of course, students are going to find ways to play around with them, like I did, but is that really so bad?

      For me this was more an exercise in understanding my own feelings on the issue and where those come from – what I would like to see from this is no necessarily change or abolishing of dress codes but a deeper analysis of why they exist and what they say to kids, especially girls. A big part of me wonders if we stopped making such a big deal about it, would the issue go away on its own? The winds of fashion are pretty fickle – by making revealing clothing forbidden fruit, are we ensuring that it sticks around even longer?

      And you’re definitely right – HOW the school responds is very important, and I didn’t address that because I think we pretty well all agree there!

      And of course, it goes without saying that MOLLY HAD BETTER NOT EVERY LEAVE THE HOUSE LOOKING LIKE THAT YOUNG LADY DO YOU HEAR ME YOU TURN AROUND AND CHANGE RIGHT NOW because it’s all great in theory but so much harder when it comes down to talking about your own kids!

  3. Incidentally, I just don’t get the upsetness about short shorts on children. I’ve been dressing my boys in tiny little shorts (so short that they don’t go with the knit boxer underwear). They’re comfortable in very warm weather, they don’t restrict movement, and they’re flattering on a short kid skinny kid. (I have the nasty feeling that putting them on a girl would get me a bad-parent branding.)

    I can see that if you’re older (and perhaps growing more hair, ahem, sorry) or taller, it’s more questionable aesthetically, but I just don’t see how it’s any more sexual than showing ankles or collarbone.

    • I mostly addressed the sexism piece, but there’s a huge classism piece too. The short-shorts or short skirt on a little girl would probably only get you branded as a bad parent if it looked “cheap” – so, short-shorts from Walmart would be seen as oversexualizing, but an equally short polo dress from Tommy Hilfiger would be adorable. “Tube tops” (very “People of Walmart”) are a no go in most middle schools, but strapless sequined corset-top dresses are all the rage for grade 8 graduations.

      I think it has a lot to do with our perception and fears as adults – the whole “stranger danger, pedophiles are everywhere just waiting to pounce” attitude when it comes to kids and the “oh god, the hormones, what are they doing and thinking when I can’t see them” fears when it comes to teenagers.

      • This one is interesting… for a while I followed a handmade clothing forum, because I liked the hand-work in doing smocking. There’s a weird divide on smocked dresses – my (English) grandmother made them to hit at mid-thigh on toddler girls (and often provided matching bloomers to go with), and to my eye, that’s appropriate and correct.

        There’s a heavy faction on the forum, though, who make a “bubble” for toddler play wear (that snaps between the legs and is gathered at the leg holes), but make all dresses come well below the knee. They seem to be the same people who put monograms on dresses (conspicuous consumption). They seem to be from across the US, though skewed Southern.

        • That is interesting – and it’s true, for infant and toddler girls, dresses are often short enough to expose a (ruffled) diaper cover. Then they start getting longer, going to just above the knee, around age 3-4, which is when we seem to start assigning the sexualization label, even though that’s still well before puberty or even pre-puberty.

  4. Yes I completely agree – the energy and focus of the system is in the wrong place and boys are definitely not held to the same standards as women when it comes to their appearance. Great post very engaging Karyn! Have a great one -Iva

  5. I went to Catholic school and wore a very distinctive “sailor suit” every day from K-8. All of the little pieces were SO IMPORTANT and kind of ruined me for clothes, to tell you the truth. I went to public high school, where there were girls no shit wearing boxer shorts to school with no one sending anyone home. It still blows my mind. And now to think of all these girls getting sent home for bra straps or whatever…*boggles*.

    • Lol – we fortunately dodged the sailor suit bullet. A rival school had them and had to wear them all the way through high school. 10 year-olds in sailor collars is cute, but I’m glad I didn’t have to wear them at 17!

  6. Great article! I also love the title, because it made me think of a certain problem within feminism. I’m tired of so-called ‘feminists’ who arbitrarily decide that revealing female clothing is patriarchal enslavement and desperation for male attention, (while they never talk about modest, ‘classy’, or feminine clothing being patriarchal bargaining) and using that problematic argument as an excuse to slut-shame ‘immodest’ females in both overt and subtle, passive-aggressive ways. Then there are feminists who confuse respectability politics- a form of victim-blaming that dictates that if Marginalized groups don’t want to be treated badly by Privileged groups and others, they need to make sure that their dress and image conform to the standards of ‘propriety’ and ‘respectability’ set by the white heteropatriarchy- for gender equality and human rights. These feminists will scapegoat ‘immodest’ women, basically saying that they’re the reason why men treat women badly, or that these women are dragging women and feminism back. Some of them will also arbitrarily decide that such females can’t be feminists, based on nothing other than the woman’s physical appearance and sexual expression. Beyoncé is one of many, many examples of this.

    They don’t even see their own hypocrisy- how they themselves are engaging in victim-blaming and misogyny with their argument, how they themselves are furthering the notion that if a woman doesn’t cover up, she must be ‘asking for’ something from men, how they themselves are furthering the message that men are dumb wild beasts who can’t help but sexually harass and sexually assault upon the sight of female flesh and curves, how they themselves are basing female status on sex and physical appearance, without doing the same to males.

    I think part of the problem is that all women and girls, regardless of their religion (or lack thereof) or how they identify politically, grow up in a society that teaches us that if we come off as ‘unladylike’, ‘immodest’, or sexual, there goes our respectability as human beings, there goes our status, there goes our personhood and value, and there goes our safety. Even liberal and feminist women can internalize this message and, because of that, feel the need to lash out at any and every female openly rejecting modesty.

    It just goes to show that being liberal, female, and feminist do not mean that one can’t treat other women in hateful, misogynistic ways or promote victim-blaming, and these things aren’t to be excused even if she has somewhat good intentions or motives.

    If feminism is to be a movement about equality and human rights, it absolutely can’t discriminate against women based on physical appearance and sexuality. Otherwise, what’s to separate feminism from some clique of catty, hateful middle school girls? What’s to separate it from the right-wing patriarchy?

    • Thank you! You’ve hit the nail on the head right there – the pressure comes from both sides – from feminists not to ‘undermine’ the cause by conforming to some patriarchal ideal of sexiness, and by that same patriarchy to dress ‘respectably’ if we want to be taken seriously. The whole Miley Cyrus/Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer open letter debacle was a great example of that.

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  9. I think fluffing about girls school uniforms or skimpy outfits is basically middle aged women expressing their jealousy.

    I hear other moms at school functions making complaints and making excuses about tempting men or inviting unwarranted attention. The men may or not be attracted but lets be honest they are able to control themselves. In any case I always thought men in general are strong and yet this excuse disrespects men and women. It says men are weak and women are stupid.

    I encourage my daughter to wear short skirts (as well as other clothes). To be proud to be identified as a girl. To have fun being feminine. To not confuse being feminine with competence. She can be both.

    • Precisely – looking and acting feminine should not be seen as an indication that you are “shallow” or incompetent – AND you hit the nail on the head about disrespecting men and women. If a school principal thinks a boy can’t concentrate if there are bare shoulders in his peripheral vision, he’s really selling that boy short.

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