US and Canadian schoolgirls are fighting back against school dress codes, after being told that their summer clothes are distracting to male students and teachers.

A group of New Jersey students has launched a campaign under the Twitter hashtag #IAmNotADistraction to emphasise that it is male objectification of the female body that schools should be challenging, rather than the way that girls dress.

As the weather turns warmer, more and more girls are being told that their shorts, dresses and strappy T-shirts will fuel the lust of their male classmates, distracting them from their schoolwork.

Sixteen-year-old Sofia Petros, one of the New Jersey campaigners, recalls having her thigh measured by the school nurse, in order to verify that her skirt was, in fact, an acceptable mid-thigh length.

“I just remember feeling incredibly ashamed,” she said. “It was the first time I ever felt that my body was an object.”

The assumption, she added, was: “Girls: bad. Need to cover up. Boys: animalistic. Can’t control themselves.”

The New Jersey students are not the only ones fighting back against sexist dress codes. In Quebec, 15-year-old Lindsey Stocker and her classmates were told to stand with their arms by their sides. If their shorts were above where their fingertips came to, the teacher said they were in violation of the dress code.

Lindsey responded by printing 20 posters reading: “Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing shorts. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”

She put these up around the school. Within minutes they were taken down and Lindsey was suspended for a day.

The last time classroom dress codes received this much attention was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor at the University of Maryland. At that time, men with long hair were attacked by their peers and the victims subsequently blamed for inciting their assailants. By 1974, there had been 150 court cases involving young men’s haircuts.

Today, too, incidences of dress-code harassment are springing up across North America, where state schools rarely require students to wear an official uniform.

In the Canadian province of Labrador, about 30 female students were sent home after being told that their sleeveless shirts revealed their bra straps. A student in Nova Scotia was disciplined after being told that the shorts she had bought (on a shopping trip with her mother) would be distracting for male teachers and students.

And in the US state of Virginia, a 17-year-old girl was told to leave her school prom, after organisers decided that her dress was too provocative and likely to cause impure thoughts among the fathers present.

The girl said: “I’m not responsible for some perverted 45-year-old dad lusting after me because I have a sparkly dress on and a big ass for a teenager. And if you think I am, then maybe you’re part of the problem.”

Adi Bloom

Questions for debate and discussion 

  1. What are some of the reasons that schools have dress codes?
  2. In the UK, most schools have uniforms. What are the advantages and disadvantages of school uniforms?
  3. Why are these young women angry about how they have been treated?
  4. These dress codes are not just offensive to girls. Explain the message these dress codes send out about boys.

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