Thursday, May 14, 2015

I haven't a thing to wear.

Makayla King short shorts“Spaghetti straps. Ultra-short skirts. Excessive cleavage. Midriff-baring tops. Shorts with a hem shorter than where a person's fingertips graze when they are standing.”
     Here we go again! That old what's-appropriate-for-girls-to-wear-to-school-and-what's-not debate. True, school boys are required to “dress appropriately,” but when the question resurfaces—as it's done constantly since coed education was invented—it's the girls who make it into the news.
     The CBC story about 17 year-old Lauren Wiggins being sent home from school for wearing an off-the-shoulder, full-length halter dress to school elicited the old saws about what clothing is appropriate for the classroom and what isn't. “It's a sexual distraction,” her teachers said, and others said that assuming boys to be helpless against bared shoulders, cleavage and belly buttons isn't helpful in their development as women-respecting men.
     I went to a high school where school uniforms for girls were mandatory and boys couldn't wear jeans or shorts to class. 60 years later, they all wear “uniform” clothing to class, but they have choices among a number of prescribed items. 
     The most compelling argument for uniforms in my day was that they relieved anxiety about what to wear, particularly for girls. I guess the fringe benefit was that girls wouldn't dress to provoke and distract the boys.
     Surely, attracting or distracting, being noticed—or at least fitting in—are what dress and fashion are about. Lauren Wiggins certainly got noticed; she made it onto national television! She'll be lucky if the on-line taunting doesn't undo her in the end, though.
     Wearing a ball gown to class is not a crime. But for appropriateness, it has to rank with the wearing of high rubber boots to gym class.
     Individualism has been given a boost in the post modern age. It's not unusual for people to play the “I have my rights” and “you can't make me” cards when confronted about their behaviour. Surely education is partly about teaching the balance between individual rights and community needs. Lauren Wiggins hasn't accepted the need for such a balance, yet. But she's only 17, right in the middle of her Sturm und Drang period.
     Often, I find, these teapot tempests are symptomatic of unresolved social tensions. In this case, it's the ambivalence about human sexuality. This confusion, in turn, can be traced back to the simple fact that we have, over the centuries, evolved dramatically in our capacity to reason, to organize and to assume mastery over ourselves and our environments. Meanwhile, our procreative instincts remain unchanged; our biological “progress” has hardly surpassed that of the Bonobo monkey. This discrepancy represents a Gordian Knot that we are having a hard time untying.
     The Christian Bible is clear in its admonitions of sexual restraint. But restraint is not a watchword in currant Western cultures; permissiveness, maybe. But I fear that a tug-of-war between permissiveness and restraint (externally applied, if necessary) is not ever going to resolve issues involving sexuality.      
     Until Lauren Wiggins sees conformity in the area of dress as beneficial and satisfying, I expect she will continue to seek attention in an “off-the-shoulder, full-length halter dress” manner.
     And the restrainers will feel forced to pounce.

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