The Bellybutton of Discord

Illustration : Nelly Damas for Foliosophy

People can mock or rant about shame t-shirts and Blanquer’s republican dress. Be as it may, what it shows is that dress codes in school settings are a serious issue. One that divides.

The substance of the debate revolves around a core yet poorly defined concept whose very lack of definition causes much of the controverse: proper dress. We’ve heard plenty of implausible comparisons in attempts to shed light on the notion. You don’t wear a bikini to church, for example, since bikinis are not adequate dress for religious celebrations. Inadequate, meaning not “equal” to what is required (its etymology), not proportionate to its object, not sufficient for its goal (its definition). The meaning of adequate in our example (when really is a bathing suit adequate dress aside from at the beach or for swimming?) is easy enough to grasp, yet the rules in effect for entering an Italian church (head, shoulders and legs covered) do not apply in the churches of Geneva. Because although coherence in adequacy between two entities may seem to be entrenched in things themselves, it’s actually rooted in our own outlook and the order we want to see in those entities. Plainly put, no outfit is proper or adequate “in itself” without the conventions we wish to be respected, either by principle or to be true (adequate?) to our values.

Strictly speaking, this means that talking about “proper dress” out of the blue without stating the components of adequacy is meaningless. And although any one of us would usually know what people mean by an “adequate solution,” an “adequate plan,” “adequate funding” and things like that, it’s because the shared implications of such situations are enough to be able to understand each other. In contrast, when a rule is wholly based on the adjective “adequate,” you have to expect a slew of troubles since the concept of adequacy is the problem — hoping the adjective will resolve it is unrealistic.

Descartes once said common sense was the most fairly distributed thing in the world, a statement he inscribed in the foreword of his Meditations of First Philosophy, little sister of his Discourse of Method. The irony is palpable. No, common sense does not suffice for people to understand each other since one’s reality of common sense is inevitably personal. Like proper dress.

What makes proper dress in schools such a major issue is that telling people what they can or can’t, must or mustn’t wear is another way of voicing the type of school we want, the school we would like to see adequately reflected in the attire of the students.

A uniform? To reinforce the feeling of belonging? To wipe away socio-economic differences? To cover those unsightly belly buttons? Let’s face the truth: it’s not hard to knot a polo shirt above the waist, or shorten a skirt with three flips of the waistband. If the intent in instating uniforms is to avert further debates over the place of the body in school settings, we need to think again.

We could legislate like Italian priests too. Enact rules on hiding what’s usually hidden in public places and veiling navels, shoulders, plunging necklines, butt cracks and upper thighs while we’re at it. We could banish everything tight-fitting, all garments that accentuate or reveal our most tantalizing curves, even when covered. Manifestly, however, overtly enunciating restrictions and prohibitions shines the spotlight right on the things we wish to keep discreet, not to mention the fact that all this is getting rather complicated. It might even trigger some sprightly ingenuity among students — not necessarily only the more mischief-prone. And it makes the adults look like prudes. Maybe even peeping toms.

Another angle in this debate is the freedom of young women to dress how they want to dress. I’ll not get into the perfectly mind-boggling contention that makes them responsible for exciting the sexual appetites of surrounding males. La Fontaine could have written a fable, a remake of the wolf and the lamb with the dominant accusing the dominated of bringing him harm.

I’m not certain academic authorities gain much by letting schools make their own rules, nor by militarily imposing a dress code. I am certain, however, that much is lost in terms of educational relevancy when an ordeal is made over an “inadequate” outfit without having established an explicit and substantiated discourse on what is adequate and why the school is attached to that type of adequacy (rather than another). If a student is deemed to be indecently dressed and it’s declared for everyone to hear without being sure their outfit was intended as an explicit act of provocation, it’s a form of violence toward the student. Not only is that student stigmatized, they’re stigmatized because of personal choices that we know are crucial for our individualization in adolescence.

Uniform, dress code or not, what’s important is an academic significance willfully conveyed by authorities and upheld by the students themselves. We can reap full benefits of a social issue to help our students grow without the institution wandering astray in rationales worthy of Little Miss Prudery.

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Marie-Claude Sawerschel

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