I had always thought that people who call into radio stations were a little strange. So what possessed me to pull into an empty parking lot outside an abandoned fish and chips restaurant and nervously call in? The Crop Top Controversy, that’s what. I had been driving around all day and had heard various radio stations discussing the event that happened at Etobicoke School of the Arts, but they all seemed to be missing something that I felt was extremely relevant to the discussion.

Before I get into my personal opinions, it is important to fully understand what happened. The debate surrounding crop tops was started by Alexei Halket at Etobicoke School of the Arts, who was told by her school that her crop top was violating the dress code. She felt that the school was sexualizing her outfit and used Facebook to rally her peers in support. The next day a large portion of the student body showed up wearing cropped tops. The principal, aware of the student’s plan, told National Post that the dress code is merely “... about appropriate dress for the setting.” Nonetheless, ‘Crop Top Day’ received national news coverage and sparked a large discussion on dress codes, sexualisation of women’s bodies, and equity.

Dress codes have been under continued scrutiny, with many people arguing that they target young woman by sexualizing their bodies. Here at the University of Toronto, students can be spotted in an array of different clothes that show their own personal style choices. After searching online I did not find any schoolwide dress codes. The only faculty that came up with a dress code was the Physical Therapy Department, who provided a dress code for their health care professionals. The website explains, “The dress codes exists for your safety as a health professional and the safety of your patients.” It asks that individuals dress conservatively in a non-revealing manner with no jewellery that could potentially cause scratches. It also asks students to keep makeup subtle and tie their hair back.

The University of Toronto’s Human Resources department acknowledges that most departments have an informal dress code, but it advises people interviewing for a job at the school to look groomed and dress professionally. Beyond these two pages there is limited information regarding dress codes within the university.

I was surprised that Rotman Commerce did not come up with anything for dress codes since they are arguably the most professionally-dressed students on campus. They did not have a program-wide dress code on their website but after further searching I found that some of their events have dress codes such as Business Formal or Business Casual, but nothing broadly applicable. It is safe to assume that these findings point to the fact the university feels that its students know how to dress appropriately for a given context.

Dress codes in elementary and secondary schools do have issues, but what pushed me to call into the radio was a tendency to overlook the importance of how we communicate about dress codes. It is important to understand the purpose of a dress code and to outline what is appropriate in a professional environment. Schools not only teach academic subjects such as Math or English, they teaches the skills needed to excel in a professional environment. These range from learning how to effectively communicate in a group, to what vocabulary is appropriate, to what is appropriate to wear. Dress codes are not designed to sexualize young women or create gender inequality.

Dress codes are not an obstacle to feminism. They expect the same thing for both genders. The issue lies in how we communicate. I remember at the beginning of grade twelve when my male principal sat us all down in an assembly to discuss dress codes. He told the girls (of which I was one) that we should dress appropriately, not “like we were trying to make tips”. It is statements like these and words like “distracting” that contribute to inequality and sexualization. Administrators should use dress codes to create learning experiences, not as a way to demean young women for expressing themselves and exploring their sexuality. It is important to articulate dress codes clearly and explain the logic behind the rules so that they see the validity in them. Dress codes must be reframed in terms of how they can benefit students, particularly girls.

So while I do not completely agree with the movement started by the students at Etobicoke School of the Arts, I am still incredibly proud of them. This experience showed these young women that they can make a difference, and gave them a more nuanced understanding of feminism. Girls should not be kept from wearing crop tops to school because it is deemed “too sexy” or “distracting”, but they should understand that in a professional environment both males and females are expected to cover their midsections. It’s not inequality, it’s not sexualization, it is dressing respectfully.

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