Culture Clash: What’s Underneath Dress Code for Schools

What are you concerned about today? What is at the top of your list of qualms, battles to fight and issues to raise? It is always interesting to see what demands attention, riles us up and pushes us to take action. For so long we have been taking what has been dished out, finding ways to work around disadvantageous systems, and complaining in small circles.

To see people rise up is new for many, even if it has been happening in pockets for generations. Social media has increased visibility and, in some cases, given some a sense of security through anonymity. Resistance is uncomfortable, even for the people observing it. Sometimes it feels unsafe for people, but most times it just seems unsafe for the systems and norms we know well. Even change for the better can be scary. As they say, “Ya know what ya got, but ya don’t know what you gon’ get.”

It makes sense there are some things we just don’t want to let go. It makes sense when it directly affects us, but what is our excuse for opposing progress for other people? How do we decide what is progressive and what is regressive?

One issue we are not likely to agree on is dress.

While it has become acceptable to wear bright or pastel colours at funerals, red dresses at weddings and jeans on Fridays at the office, we hold on to some old, nonsensical rules we like to call “standards”. That term makes it easier to subjugate, shame and force people into compliance. It means anyone who does not fit the mould is less-than, and we can look down on them, never bothering to think about the real difference between us and them.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Education posted a dress code for “visitors” to school compounds on its Facebook page – and everything is wrong with it. To start, if we really want to talk about “appropriate” appearances, the Ministry should hire or contract a graphic designer, or at least graduate from using the word art in Microsoft Word.

In the post, the Ministry demands visitors refrain from wearing mini skirts, tank tops, pum-pum shorts, high cut or off the shoulder tops, visible cleavage, see through clothing, tightly fitted clothing, and t-shirts with violence or sexual images. It further states that security has the right to deny property access to anyone deemed “inappropriately dressed”. Far too similar to the Parliamentary Registration Department’s foolery during the voter registration period ahead of the 2017 general election, this dress code is misogynistic. It targets women, limiting what we wear in what seems to be an attempt to make us invisible by hiding body parts deemed dangerous to the sight of others — namely unsuspecting, innocent, impressionable childlike men. It does not address low-hanging pants or exposed butt cracks. Interesting.

What is wrong with a parent collecting their child in a tank top and jeans? What, exactly, is the issue with a v-neck that, on certain body types, will expose cleavage? Why are women expected to be ashamed of our bodies? Some of us have cleavage and many pieces of “work appropriate” clothing will not conceal it. It does not even seem possible to have a conversation about cleavage when this dress code reveals a problem with shoulders and legs.

The comments on the dress code post are not surprising, but disgusting nonetheless. People are celebrating this announcement, some asking for other articles of clothing — like leggings — to be added to the list while others suggest a similar policy for teachers. In a conversation about the inappropriateness of this dress code, someone tried to convince me that is acceptable because teachers and employees at other places of business have a dress code to follow. Rather than argue about the history of colonialism and its persisting affects on former colonies like The Bahamas, I pointed out that employees choose — though we can argue about real choice and the illusion of choice — to sign on to policies through employment contracts and that is not a sensible parallel.

Adults are free to wear what they wish and there need not be ridiculous limitations on what parents or guardians wear when collecting children from school or engaging with administration or teachers.

If I am a waitress whose uniform includes a mini skirt or pum-pum shorts and I take a break to collect my child from school, I will be in violation of the dress code. Is that more important than being there to take my child home from school? If I work shifts and break my sleep for the school run, I won’t be able to enter the school compound in a tank top and shorts? I need to suit up for the trip?

The dress code is based on personal taste, and what is deemed “inappropriate” is completely subjective. I wonder if the people celebrating this dress code are the same people who complain about how many children are left in the schoolyard for hours, or how few parents show up for meetings at the school.

Dress codes go beyond sex, sexuality, nudity and discomfort with the human body. They are often rooted in respectability politics. There are expectations of black people that are not held over white people because there is an idea that black people need to do more work to be worthy of respect. A white women and a black woman could be in the same place wearing the same outfits and receive completely different responses because of the way we see gender and race as a package. The same goes for women of different sizes, or even different ages.

In majority black spaces, it seems we work even harder to fight stereotypes, putting the burden on individuals to undo centuries of oppression by checking all of the boxes that are supposed to grant access to a better life and perception of the entire race. Still, it doesn’t work. A black man in a suit with a school-boy haircut, fancy watch, nice car and university degree is still a black man.

Students of the University of The Bahamas are currently fighting a battle against administration. UB president Rodney Smith — the same former president known for plagiarising part of a speech in 2005 — has banned stoles and decorated caps from future graduation ceremonies. He claimed such things are not “academic” or “dignified”. It is interesting he would dare to utter those words given his past, but of course a man with the gumption to reapply for the position of president of the University of The Bahamas, after accepting responsibility for plagiarism, would have the confidence to steal joy from his moral high ground.

UB students are not accepting his position. They are not prepared to give up their traditions because this man has decided it just doesn’t look good or fit his perfect vision of the ceremony. I hope they fight hard and refuse to stop until he and the entire administration acknowledge the ceremony is about the students. It is not about his personal taste. It is a celebration of many years — because we all know it takes far more than four trying years for many to be done with UB — of dedication, waiting to register, pay and be advised in the hot sun, rat run-ins and financial hardship. They deserve better and they deserve our support as they fight for it, whether we like stoles and decorated caps or not.

Just because you’ve bought into respectability politics doesn’t mean everyone else must. If you are comfortable living in that box, good for you. Wear turtlenecks, blazers, culottes to pick up your children from school. Shield the eyes of your children from the offensive legs and shoulders around you. Avert your eyes from the “undignified” newly-degreed young people. Let people have nice things, even if those things are not nice to you.

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