Adolescents will get up to harmless mischief uniforms or no. Perhaps we adults need to go to school on them.
There were no dress codes in the schools I attended in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We guys were not ‘distracted’ by the young women any more than they were by us. It is true that females mature in all ways more rapidly than males. This is in fact the only salient clue we need to decipher the fashionable official tempest regarding something as regressive and archaic as the presence of dress codes in our public schools. Adults are the ones being distracted, end of story.
Numerous news articles have of late given head to this seemingly innocuous and obscure item. Students protesting – the #takeastand movement is the latest and hopefully greatest of these – and administrators aping their peers in Iran. But the idea that forcing young women to cover up there oh so dangerous bodies promotes a culture of rape and violence against women in general is only a slice of the entire issue. The wider pedigree of this latter day fascism is the puritanism of new world religious movements and the more general insensibility imported by European (and now other) immigrants of all kinds. The fanatics of Europe, cast out of a society rapidly changing politically, scientifically and intellectually only to wash up on the First Nations’ shorelines and promptly set up the residential school system amongst other atrocities, are the darker ancestors to today’s school dress codes. Woman-hating, certainly, but more than this, life-hating. Earthly, sensuous, beautiful life.
Christianity is hardly the only religious suasion that carries this baggage around with it to this day, but it remains the most pronounced in our society. Yet religion is a mere rationalization for other, more structural forces. One may read statements from schools across Canada that young persons need ‘guidance’ regarding their professionalism, citing workplaces as the obvious and indeed misguided homology. Case in point: I have never been asked to alter my apparel in any workplace in which I have been employed. Do I have a mysterious intuitional faculty that allows me to understand the mores of professional workplaces without ever being subjected to dress codes as a young person? I wish I had more of those kinds of occlusive skills. Of course, men are often exempted from such sanctions as these. Why? Because men, in the main, are the one’s who invent them for others to follow. No, religion is used by some as an excuse for fascism and the exertion of social control over those members of our society who are not really human beings in our eyes, those we resent because they still know how to love life, silly mischief included. But other excuses, especially in the public sector, come across as yet more inane than those scriptural, misunderstood or no.
Kudos to the Victoria school district for considering banning dress codes in their public schools. The sooner the better. Those nameless trustees mentioned in the news item who are concerned about ‘modesty’ should simply move to Tehran, where they can openly practice their women-hating etc. proclivities without hiding behind the guise of responsible and voluntaristic citizenship. Shame on the Essex school district, and countless others, for defending them. By way of analogy rather than homology, in BC at least, labour code regulations state that employers may not force their workers to wear items of apparel that are demeaning or affect their health, like heels, which are well known to cause back and joint problems. Could it be that the mental health of young persons is negatively affected by having so much control over their nascent lives? Anorexia is one response to this stultification of youthful desire for what freedoms are available to us. Addictions is another response. Repressed sexuality – hence the rape culture thing again – yet another.
We adults feel and bear all of these repressions ourselves and we imagine that imposing them on our children will even the existential score. I have written in other places about the issue of ressentiment which all aging humans feel toward the young. It is, at base, a symptom of the will to life, though a perverse and unethical one. Our suburban existence is itself a schizophrenic scherzando of public puritanism and private perversion. Instead, upon such matters as these, we might well need to learn from youth. Like the firearms issue, the problem of poverty in a society where we originally teach children to share and share alike – where does that go, by the way? – and the hypocrisy of telling youth that they can do anything they want with their lives, be anyone, male or female; be creative, critical, seek justice in all things and peace on earth and yet provide none of the institutional or wider bases for these things to take hold and manifest themselves in adult life, are all symptoms of the same sorry malaise.
Ironically, uniform schools show a greater sense of esprit de corps. Of course they must deal with the most infamous fetish item – the young woman in tartan pleats and coloured tights, etc. – our sexualized objectification of womankind has ever invented. While respecting and evening out the sexual tension in such schools by flattening out the view, so to speak – adults can gaze out over the independent school classroom landscape and not be as distracted by individuals – one still has to deal with the archetype. So uniforms present their own unique array of challenges and do not unequivocally answer the issues supposedly plaguing the public schools. It is also well known that young women hailing from different social class backgrounds find ingenious ways to set themselves apart that their peers can easily recognize, since even the more limited options of the uniform can vary widely in price and brand cachet.
Once again, as with the firearms issue in the USA, the only counsel I can give young people is the same: walk out of the schools and don’t return until the dress codes are abolished. It is possible their presence may be a charter issue, though I am not a lawyer. There are so many of you that you will not be sanctioned. The schools need you more than you need the schools in any case. Shut the system down, legally, non-violently, but with purpose and dignity, with rational argument and insight like Mallory Johnston in Windsor demonstrated – whoever Sheila Gunn is, imagining that a fifteen year old has ‘tantrums’, she needs to rename her shtick ‘the reactionary’ for she is surely no ‘rebel’, at least on this issue – and change will occur.
In the meanwhile, and even more importantly, we adults need to re-examine the manner in which we remain within and retain the suppression of basic elements of a wider ambit of human freedoms to the point of questioning our daily subsistence practices and the regulations that enforce them. If we already know we are jealous to the point of the grave regarding our children, then it is but a short cognitive step to ask the question: why so? If we’re not having enough fun, sex, engaging in silliness and loving life on a day to day basis; if we’re instead working too much, addicted, suffering from mental illnesses, in uneasy relationships at home and at work, hating those wealthier and prettier than us, doubting our senses regarding the environment, pretending to believe in world systems thousands of years old and hailing from another metaphysics entirely different than our authentically own and further fearing our own Jungian shadows, let’s at least not foist all that on our kids. If we don’t adjust the world accordingly, their time will come in any case. We will see to that.
G.V. Loewen is an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, religion and aesthetics. The author of over thirty books, he is one of Canada’s leading contemporary thinkers.