Should we generalize gender-neutral dress codes?

should-we mainstream gender-neutral dress codes? 

In recent years, the school environment has been marked by controversies and insurrections concerning the way students dress and especially how to govern it. In 2022, can we expect a generalization of gender-neutral dress codes?  

The length of skirts and shorts, the width of the straps, the depth of the necklines are all elements generally taken into account in a dress code in which very precise rules, down to the centimeter, are established.  

By primarily targeting the bodies and clothing of girls, who are the first to be called to order, these rules “reiterate a gendered, binary and hierarchical logic in terms of gender”, believes Rose Moisan-Paquet , a doctoral student in sociology at Laval University whose master's thesis focused on dress codes.

These codes would be inherited according to her “from the moral panic around the hypersexualization of girls in the early 2000s”. “We would solve the problem of” the excessive sexuality of girls “, in quotes of course, by setting up a dress code”, she continues. , what would it look like?  

The Robert-Gravel case 

To get an idea, just turn to the Robert-Gravel high school, located in the Mile-End and specialized in the performing arts, which has made a name for itself in the last year by adopting a dress code not gendered.

Last November, the school principal, Ronald Jean-Pierre, decided to remove all gendered elements from the school's dress code. A change that occurred under pressure from many parents, students and teachers who wanted to see the old dress code, which was considered sexist and outdated, disappear.  

For several months, a long consultation process was was carried out to establish new gender-neutral rules. More permissive, the new code prohibits however the wearing of a cap or a hat or that the clothing reveals the underwear or private parts of the student, regardless of gender.

“[During the seven months when no dress code was applied], we no longer questioned any student if the comment we were about to make was aimed at one gender more than another”, summarizes the director. 

And concretely, what has changed? Has the school administration noted any adverse consequences? 

“You see more navels and more spaghetti straps, that's all. But there was no disaster. No girl came to school naked. The boys passed their ministerial exams. Nothing indicates that they were distracted during their math class by a spaghetti strap or a navel,” laughs Mr. Jean-Pierre. 

Still barriers  

While the Center de services scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM) is working on a guide to support schools in developing inclusive dress codes, it is still up to each school to determine its own dress code. 

Following the yellow squares movement, launched by students from Joseph-François-Perrault secondary school in 2018 to denounce dress codes deemed sexist, several schools promised that they would review them. But since then, few changes have really taken place and “we are still waiting for a large-scale change”, says Rose Moisan-Paquet. 

Again last May, the Père-Marquette school made headlines when employees were accused of having touched the legs of several students to check the length of their shorts and skirts. The indignation had been such that a demonstration had been organized in front of the school.  

The uniform for all? 

In this context, would the uniform, which imposes the same look on everyone, be a solution to the problem of the dress code?  

Many schools already use it, but contrary to what you might think, it does not prevent girls from being reprimanded for their dress, especially for the length of their skirt. At Collège Jean-Eudes, boys had also drawn attention to this issue in 2020 by wearing skirts in class, but the dress code has not changed since.  

The uniform also represents another disadvantage because “clothing is an important part of the development of identity,” says psychologist Lou-Ann Morin. “The periods of childhood and adolescence are very important for identity development. Having too little freedom in the mediums of expression, especially clothing, is detrimental to this development,” she continues.  

This is particularly true for young people who kind that is out of the norm. Deprivation of freedom can have negative consequences on the quality of their development, and even on their mental health, believes the expert. Thus, the psychologist believes that a uniform should not be too rigid and should leave freedom to explore.  

“The resistance to leaving freedom – for example let one person wear the skirt and a more “masculine” polo shirt – comes from the fear of having to deal with bullying and from a misunderstanding of the importance of gender expression in child and adolescent development. » 

Rather than dictating how students should dress, she concludes, the solution would be to better train schools to manage situations of harassment and bullying.  

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