Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dressing for the occasion

Clothing policies are everywhere. Whether they are rooted in tradition, are for practical purposes or to give off a particular impression, many workplaces have a specific uniform, you are expected to not wear white to a wedding (unless you’re the bride), black is for funerals and you shouldn’t turn up to an important meeting with your CEO in trainers.

However, what happens when a clothing policy becomes oppressive and offensive?

I recently discovered that the sixth form my sister attends have introduced a new ‘clothing policy’. The sixth form is situated in an all boy’s secondary school and it turns out there had been repeated instances of boys making lewd and suggestive sexual remarks towards the sixth form girls. As a result, the headteacher informed the girls that they were no longer allowed to wear shorts as, presumably, he believed this would decrease the comments and solve the problem. The girls were not happy, a petition was started and, alongside highlighting other issues the students had with the sixth form, this was ignored.

I honestly didn’t even know where to start. My initial reaction was anger that an educational institute were choosing to ‘blame the victim’ instead of educating (I know, I’m not missing the irony either) the boys to view girls as more than just sexual objects that it was ok to shout lewd and suggestive remarks at. I am almost certain I can guess the headteacher’s thought process… “Well, boys will be boys.” And this is where I got stuck. This is why I haven’t yet written an angry letter to either the headteacher or the local paper. This is why I’ve been mulling this around in my head for the last couple of months not exactly knowing how to proceed.

For this is a much bigger issue.

Let me explain.

I work for a fantastic organisation that empowers girls and young women through non-formal education and a rights-based approach. One particular campaign we have is called ‘Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights’. In March 2013 I attended the UN Gender Equality conference (UN Commission on the Status of Women) and the focus theme was ‘the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women’. As you can see, our campaign fitted right in.
I was very lucky that I got to hear some amazing speakers and attend some truly inspiring events however the person whose words have stayed with me the most is Michael Kaufman. Yes, a man. A brilliant man. The fight to end, and ultimately prevent, violence from happening to girls and women, and for true gender equality, can often be a lonely fight for one particular gender. It can be seen as a woman’s issue. It can be seen as a load of angry lesbians screaming about how much they hate men. It can be seen as an opportunity to blame men. It can divide and it can create an ideology that women think they’re better than men. It can raise the question: “Violence happens to boys and men as well, why are you focusing on just one gender?”

Obviously I don’t believe any of the above, and the last comment is for another post, I don’t want to detract from the original point of writing this. But I do understand and I will explain later.

Michael Kaufman tore all of this apart. I wish every boy and man on this planet could hear him speak as I honestly believe he could create a shared understanding between every girl, boy, woman and man.
Michael Kaufman co-founded a charity called the ‘White Ribbon campaign’. It is an organisation of men fighting for the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women. It is founded on the belief that gender stereotypes, gender roles and expectations and, ultimately, gender inequality are the root cause of violence against girls and women. Gender stereotypes and gender roles and expectations fuel gender inequality. In other words, the roles BOTH genders are expected to play, the specific qualities society has attached to BOTH genders and the limited expectations that exist for BOTH genders are the reason we live in a society that is not yet equal. A society where gender-based violence takes place.

However, how has this post gone from a ‘clothing policy’ in a sixth form to gender stereotypes?

Because – and this is really important – this ‘clothing policy’ is not just destructive, offensive and oppressive to the girls involved, it is also destructive, offensive and oppressive to all of those boys.

By creating this ‘clothing policy’ the headteacher is objectifying the girls. He is saying that they are only objects to be viewed in a sexual nature and by covering up the ‘temptation’ he believes he is limiting the amount of sexual object that will be viewed and therefore decrease the sexual remarks which are directed at this sexual object.
He is assuming the boys will only see these girls as sexual objects and therefore he is fuelling the gender stereotype that boys are only interested in sex and are incapable of interacting with the opposite sex in a respectful fashion, as another human being. He is creating an expectation that real men view girls, first and foremost, in a sexual manner and if they don’t, they’re not ‘real men’ or ‘lads’ (a disgusting phrase and stereotype I HATE but will save for another post). He is creating an entirely destructive environment for these boys which fuels disrespect of girls and, ultimately (and yes, this is a big statement), the belief that if a girl is bearing flesh she is ‘up for it’ and ‘deserves whatever she gets’.
And then we enter a horrible, but very real situation. The situation that says 83% of girls in the USA aged between 12 and 16 experience some form of sexual harassment at public school[1]; the situation that says that at least 1 in 4 girls and women in the UK will be victims of domestic abuse in their lifetime[2]; and the situation that says only 3% of rapists will spend a day in prison[3], often because the girl is reluctant to even report it in the first place. We don’t need a survey to tell us that society judges those harshly who report a sexual assault and had been drinking or wearing suggestive clothing.

We cannot allow this cycle to continue!

Objectification is all around us. Anyone of any age can walk into a newsagents, open a Sun newspaper and be greeted by a woman bearing her naked breasts, thereby fuelling the belief that women are just objects to be viewed in a sexual nature. This sixth form is an educational institute and it has the responsibility to be educating the girls and boys of today to be the responsible and accepting adults of tomorrow. This sixth form should be providing guidance to both the boys and girls that smashes away the limitations of society and teaches them that it’s ok to be themselves. It should be creating a society that refuses to support these stereotypes any longer and accepts everyone for who they are, regardless of how they act and what role they want to play. It should be empowering the girls to know they have the right to wear whatever they want and it NEVER gives a boy or man the right to rape or hurt them or view them as just a sexual object. And it should be empowering the boys every day to believe that they are capable of real relationships, that to be accepted as a ‘real man’ they don’t have to view girls as just sexual objects and that it’s a form of violence and abuse to shout unwanted remarks at girls. Or, in fact, at anyone.

Real men don’t hurt girls and women, they respect them as equals. Real men can have true meaningful relationships – I know, I’m with an amazing man (and a great feminist). Real men don’t have to sleep with lots of different girls and never call them back, especially if this is not consensual. Real men don’t honk their car horns at a girl and real men give girls the opportunity to say ‘no’, every step of the way. And real women allow boys and men to break out of these stereotypes without judgement or assumption.

And that’s what we should be telling the boys as they grow up, regardless of what clothes a girl is wearing. Otherwise we are already limiting them and destroying their chances of being the best men they can be and reaching their full potential.

Related links:
WAGGGS’ Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights campaign:
White Ribbon Campaign (UK branch):
Doc Brown on ‘No More Page 3’, a fantastic campaign to end the objectification of women in the Sun newspaper:
Extended trailer to ‘Miss Representation’ documentary (how the media influences the way young people in the USA view men and women):


  1. Fantastic post - well done! Sounds like you have plenty more up your sleeve! I had heard about changes but not the reasons behind it - I know when I went to that sixth form, most girls chose not to wear skirts there, not great but still their choice rather than being enforced.

    As for Page 3... you can read my thoughts here

    Looking forward to reading more x

  2. Very interesting reading. Very well said. Make sure you write that letter! Jen hayler x

  3. I'm all for gender equality. But by making these organisations who stand up for one particular gender is only reinforcing a gender divide. If we live in a world where men and women are equal, and yet they are represented on each matter by a gender specific board, then we have lost equality.
    This fight isn't against violence towards women and girls. This fight is against violence towards those who are vulnerable. Let's set that as our goal instead and get rid of this gender representation divide. Then we'll have a change.

    1. You can't oppose 'violence' in general any more than you can treat 'disease' in general. This disease has these causes, that disease has those causes. You treat different diseases by treating, separately, their various causes. Much violence against women and girls originates in sexism, so we have to do something about sexism. Then, say, gang-related knife-crime between young males is a different problem requiring a different treatment. There isn't a Lilly-the-Pink remedy for violence in general.

    2. @El Desafinado - I really like this analogy, it makes it easy to understand. By choosing to treat cancer you're not ignoring that TB and malaria exist, you're just acknowledging that they have different causes and so need to be dealt with differently, potentially by different groups of people.

    3. I also like this analogy, and think it's a very good point.
      However, perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough, for this I apologise. By saying that we're fighting against violence towards those who are vulnerable, I was mainly referring to household violence, bullying, and other various forms of what are sadly day to day occurrences within our society, which I believe is what we're trying to fight against in this discussion.
      Please do not believe that I am against you. I am a feminist just as much as you are and I believe that true feminism believes in equality.
      To reinsert the analogy, what I am saying is that, yes, we should have different representational charities or groups to deal with difference diseases, such as cancer, TB and malaria. However, I merely point out the concern if we bottle this into groups for cancer in women and cancer in men, TB in women and TB in men etc. then we lose our focus. Perhaps the analogy falls apart at this point, as of course our bodies are different, but I hope you see my point?
      So in our new group, where we fight against violence against those who are vulnerable, we recognise sexism towards women as a cause. I merely wish to point out that this is not the only cause. My gay and transvestite male friends are also bullied by men, this however is not sexism but is violence against those who are vulnerable. My female friends who went to all girls schools were bullied just the same, and this is not sexism either.
      I would also like to inject that I do not necessarily believe that equality means treating men and women identically. It means that we accept that which is different or the same in another person, and treat them fairly and accordingly. Men and women are different, in body and in mind. But they are entirely, completely and utterly, equal.
      I sincerely hope that one day we will achieve true equality in our society. I am doubtful that we will get it, but I can hope.
      Perhaps I cannot express myself quite as clearly as I would like to, but I hope that you can understand what I mean.

  4. I totally agree, and on the subject of girls in magazines, we should also get rid of covers on magazines like Mens Health too. It cuts both ways.

  5. We had a similar policy at my secondary school - not the shorts part, but no strap tops, no tops that showed a glimpse of your stomach etc. I wore jeans, a t-shirt and trainers every day to school but this didn't stop the boys in my engineering class (where the gender ratio was around 1:30 girls to boys). I was casually sexually harassed by most of the boys (nothing too serious) and there was nothing I could have done about it except ignore it or fight back.

  6. Toward the beginning of this blog you mentioned that you were mulling over how to respond. Can I suggest a simple, open-letter tot he Head-Teacher through the local newspaper and leave the letter open to response. The newspaper will contact the Head-Teacher for a response.
    When the Head-Teacher responds give a far more in-depth response as you've detailed in this blog.
    Even if you don't show the Head-Teacher the error of his ways at least you may educate some of the newspaper's readership and the newspaper might look at getting more articles from you on this topic.

    1. Thank you for this. I've had a lot of support for this blog so I definitely feel in a stronger position now to write a letter. Sometimes it can be scary as you feel you might be the only one who has an option, even if you feel it's based on research.

  7. There are two issues to this argument. It is part of both boys' and girls' education to dress appropriately, as well as refraining from lewd comments. I found the low-slung jeans fashion of young men, revealing designer underpants, just as unprofessional as the low, tight top and short skirt of the young girls! And, yes, any type of suggestive remark should be stamped on too. But the job would be made easier if there was less temptation, also habits need to be inculcated for the workplace!

  8. You can't throw temptation in there! It doesn't matter how people dress, how they look or anything like that. You should be able to go around however the hell you want and not get any comments or bad actions from anyone! We are not responsible for how other people behave! That kind of twisted victim blaming thinking has got to stop now! For shame! I do not believe in any dress codes for any occasion. People should always be able to wear whatever they want at school, work, or anywhere, end of.

    1. Completely agree, especially when it has been acknowledged that the reason for the 'dress code' is to stop 'temptation'.