Body-Shaming? Or Education-Honouring?

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It’s back-to-school time and, for many Canadian pupils, it’s back to the demands of school dress codes.

Not just in private schools, but in many public schools, dress codes are in force. And you can bet that in a week or two, there will be at least one sensational news story of a teenage girl being sent home for showing too much of this or that in contravention of such a code.

University of Calgary education professor Diane Gereluk points out that dress codes can be complex and problematic. In particular, they are often, even typically, gendered—requiring more (clothing) of girls than of boys. They can insist on impractical traditions—such as skirts (again, only for girls) even on Canadian winter days. And by distinguishing uniforms for one sex versus the other, they now run afoul of progressive concerns about gender identity and expression.

Professor Gereluk also discusses religiously mandated clothing as well, an important topic deserving its own treatment. Today, though, let’s talk about the most frequent criticism of dress codes: they promote shame of the body. Professor Gereluk writes:

“Tank tops, spaghetti straps, bare shoulders, cleavage or no cleavage, shorts that are too short, midriff, shirts/pants regulations are indicative of the multiple infractions that shame girls…. Many dress codes point to the assumption that girls’ bodies should be covered. The infractions for noncompliance exacerbate the shaming of girls’ self-perception of their worth. And yet it points to the basic assumption that girls’ bodies are shameful — something that is to be covered, evaluated or objectified.”

Well, that’s one (wrong) way to look at it. It might be true in some other cultures, but in this culture, the problem is not that girls’ bodies are shameful, it is that they can be distracting. And in an educational institution, distractions are properly kept to a minimum.

Let’s make clear also that this isn’t just a girl-boy dynamic. Yes, boys are distracted by girls’ appearance, but so are girls. In fact, my spies in Girl Culture tell me that girls pay far more attention to each other’s appearance than do at least most boys. Dress codes put limits on “competitive dressing,” particularly drawing a line regarding just how sexily young female scholars will be allowed to dress when everyone at school is supposed to be focused on . . . school.

Some critics might blame Canada’s Christian heritage for prudish and even misogynistic attitudes toward girls’ bodies. There is, of course, more than a little substance to that accusation, since the history of Christianity, like that of many other religions, has a strain of asceticism that can include positive hatred of the body—and fear of women’s bodies as especially powerful temptations to men.

What needs to be emphasized instead, however, is that the Bible is body-positive. Yes, the Old Testament law has a purity code that declares ritually unclean some functions of the body. (You can guess what they are—or look them up.) But that same Old Testament revels in the body, with blush-inducing anatomical specificity, in the Song of Solomon. No body-shaming there!

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul is sometimes viewed as an anti-sexual spoilsport. But he is actually strongly body-positive. He uses the human body as his favourite metaphor for the very Church of Christ. And he literally commends sexual generosity to husbands and wives (I Corinthians 7:1-5).

Moreover, the earliest of the major creeds, the Apostles Creed, singles out the body for special attention: “I believe in the resurrection of the body”—a requirement to enjoy life in the world to come on a renewed planet, not floating spiritually in an ethereal twilight zone.

When Christians want students to dress a certain way, therefore, it is not out of shame about the body, but out of respect for it: its dignity, beauty, and power. To say that people should be entirely free to display their bodies by (un-)dressing any way they like is not to avoid shaming those bodies as bad, but to disparage them as inconsequential.

For a positive alternative, I think of the varsity basketball players at my university, both men and women, whom I got to know in a quasi-chaplain role last year. If any class of people have no shame about their bodies, it is this group of fine athletes. And when they show up at the annual awards banquets, they really show up: handsome young men, beautiful young women.

On the court, however, they dress to play. The women dispense with the make-up and fancy hairstyles and form-fitting dresses. It’s all pony-tails and baggy uniforms and the most sensible of shoes. Same with the men—except for the pony-tails.

And in class? Appropriateness rules there, too. Jeans, sweatshirts, gym shoes, baseball caps—and that’s the women! These possessors of elite bodies come to the lecture hall to learn, not to preen, and they have their own dress code: what gets the job done.

This season, then, we could insist at least on Professor Gereluk’s minimalist advice, which she borrows from the Evanston Township High School in Illinois: “Certain body parts must be covered for all students at all times. Specifically, students must wear their clothes in a way that fully covers their genitals, buttocks, breasts and nipples with opaque fabric. Such a simple… dress code policy removes the broader contested aspects of gender, sexual identity, faith or systemic discrimination.”

It also dispenses with the false issue of shame and the real issues of distraction and dignity, and it keeps the focus where it belongs: on learning.

And that’s something all educators, parents, and students should easily agree on.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).