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How dress codes reinforce systemic violence

Dress codes are messed up in many different ways.

Schools, gyms, and businesses often use dress codes to encourage what they call “professionalism” in their spaces, and to limit distractions caused by outfits that some might deem too revealing or “inappropriate.”

On the surface, these intents appear harmless, that they support a healthy work environment for all users. However, you don’t have to take too many layers off of this issue to understand the oppressive impacts of dress codes.

For example, think about what happens when:

  • Businesses tell their employees to wear “professional” attire
  • Gyms prohibit their users from working out in “distracting” gear
  • Schools expect their students to dress in clothes that conform to the sex they were assigned at birth

In each of these cases, the institution enforcing the dress code has made a value judgment about which sorts of clothes and behaviours are appropriate, and which are not. And often, these value judgments create oppressive and discriminatory frameworks that further marginalize certain groups.

Dress codes are also often enforced unequally and in ways that are misogynistic, racist, colonial, and transantagonistic.

The “distraction” argument is often used by schools and gyms to defend their dress codes, and is enforced when folks who use the space are told to dress in a certain way so that they don’t “distract” the other users of the space. This narrative commonly presents itself as schools telling feminine-identified folks to cover up, that they are distracting masculine-identified folks in the space. It also includes schools kicking students out of their own prom because of “provocative” dresses and workplaces forcing trans and non-binary folks to wear either “male” or “female” clothing. As if fashion has a gender identity.

When schools tell students to dress a certain way so they don’t “distract” others, they prioritize one gender’s education over another, shame the students, sexualize their bodies and reinforce heteronormativity and the gender binary, and perpetuate the assumption that “boys cannot control themselves.”

There are so many examples of this. And this isn’t just about dress codes. These kinds of arguments build and contribute to the ongoing societal validation of sexual harassment and assault–they make it okay for police to say, “You shouldn’t have been wearing that, what did you think was going to happen?” Policing what people wear, instead of teaching them to be respectful and consensual with others, assumes that certain outfits will protect you from sexual assault while others will make you vulnerable.

This is a myth. This is victim blaming. Clothes do not invite sexual assault. Rape predates the mini skirt.

And this culture extends beyond overt sexual violence and manifests itself in unspoken public dress codes and body ideals–for example, shaming people when they wear something considered “inappropriate” or “suggestive” by publicly commenting on their clothes or body, or telling them to leave a public space or get a change of clothes, thereby using public humiliation as a tool to control what people wear.

There is tons to say about how white supremacy wraps itself around dress codes, for example how white Christian clothing norms were violently enforced in residential schools, including hair being forcibly cut to culturally separate, humiliate and gender young Indigenous kids.

There is schools prohibiting “gang attire” as code for clothing worn by young Black and Latino men1.

There is forbidding Muslim women from wearing the hijab, even though that is a violation of human rights law, and prohibiting athletes from competing while wearing the hijab.

There is the violent backlash that Sikh man Baltej Singh Dillon faced when he lobbied for changes to the RCMP dress code that prohibited beards and turbans.

Black youth have been prohibited from wearing their natural hair and hairstyles associated with black cultures (including box braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, hair extensions and weaves) in schools. And there is the fact that dress code violations are enforced in ways that target POC youth in schools more often than white youth, contributing to the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Dress codes are also used to police gender non-conformity, targeting trans and queer students who wear clothes that are “unsuitable” for their assumed/perceived/assigned gender.

Dress codes are also often sizeist2, in that they are used to enforce unrealistic body standards, and punish people whose bodies don’t conform to these standards.

A common argument for dress codes is that they actually allow people to save money through buying less clothes for the student or employee–however, dress codes still usually defeat this purpose through their classist expectations that people buy clothes that are more expensive in both initial cost and upkeep (think about school uniforms that are dry-clean only, for example). Classism also rears its gross head in the ways schools and workplaces ban the types of clothes that poor and working class people can afford, even using blatant language about wanting to  be a “classy” establishment, or equating a certain style with competence and success.3 One study in the US found that in schools dress codes are disproportionately enforced against people with disabilities.

Ironically, another common argument for dress codes in schools is that they actually do support anti-bullying campaigns, with the assumption that by forcing every student to wear the same clothes, schools “level the playing field” and remove opportunities for marginalized students to be harassed and bullied. This argument individualizes oppression, treats violence as skin-deep (or rather clothing-deep), and again places the responsibility, costs, and labour of making their school safe directly on the student. It just goes to show:

You can take clothes away from a person, but you can’t take a person out of the systemic structures of oppression in which we all live.

We must also recognize that when institutions talk about “acceptability,” “professionalism,” and “discomfort,” they are talking about white able-bodied cis-masculine centred standards. They are referencing a history of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. They are upholding the notion that a gender binary is real and should be enforced. Dress codes, in short, have too often been a tool of a dominant culture and a way to police certain kinds of bodies. And as dress codes relate to rape culture, they sometimes project the idea that when female-identified folks dress a certain way their bodies become inherently sexualized, and as such are inherently at risk of an assault. This mentality blames the person experiencing harm, instead of focusing on the person who caused the harm.

The good news is that some administrators are starting to recognize the damaging impact that bad dress codes can have on people. The Greater Victoria School Board is in the process of reviewing its dress code language to remove anything that targets girls.

Because when it comes to dress codes and sexualized violence, the issue isn’t clothing. The issue is one of entitlement over certain types of bodies. The issue is a lack of knowledge about consent and respecting boundaries.

And as we’ve quickly touched on, it goes beyond sexualized violence. Dress codes are so entangled up in systems of oppression and violence, that designing and enforcing them seriously risks reinforcing racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression. With all this context in mind, there are many questions that need to be considered. Whose comfort is being prioritized? Which identities, genders, and cultures are determining what is considered appropriate? In what ways does someone’s race, class, and gender impact their experience of the dress codes? Whose cultural attire are being normalized, and whose are being discriminated against? Who does a dress code protect and who does it harm? In what ways is a dress code contributing to a culture of entitlement and misogyny?

Writing this article has brought up so many questions for us. I imagine that we will be writing more on this soon.

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