Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 2, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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let's rethink the



Desirée de Jesus is a Concordia University Public Scholar, video essayist, and PhD Candidate in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. She researches representations of marginalized girls and women in popular culture.

Can’t imagine hearing this request during a job interview? Well I did. I was a teenager applying for a summer cashier job for a multinational media and entertainment company. Back then, I wore my textured natural hair in “locs,” a hairstyle you’ve probably seen on Ava Duvernay, the award-winning filmmaker. Sad and puzzled, I glanced at my reflection as I left the store: I was dressed professionally and my hair was styled neatly, so why weren’t my communication skills and film knowledge enough?

Sadly, experiences like mine are more common than you might think. Throughout much of the world, girls’ and women’s appearances are used as excuses to marginalize them. In some schools, this policing of girls’ appearances includes rules that characterize girls’ bodies as sexual distractions that prevent boys from learning. To mark the International Day of the Girl Child Oct. 11, I want to talk about why it’s vital that we challenge and change these attitudes.

Last year, girls from high schools in Montreal and across Canada protested these discriminatory dress codes. Many argued that instead of fostering productive learning environments that benefited all, the rules unfairly targeted girls and normalized sexist behaviour. For many girls and women of colour, these school and workplace dress codes all too often are applied in a way that imposes the additional burden of conforming to a beauty standard that requires them to straighten their hair, wear straight-hair extensions, or face disciplinary actions.

With pressing problems like child marriage and forcible displacement, it’s easy to think that issues like implicit bias and sexism aren’t as important. But letting discrimination continue in contexts that are supposed to empower and educate girls has consequences. It marks certain spaces in society as off-limits. It teaches girls to anticipate a future in which they’ll be blamed for attracting unwanted attention, discrimination and sexual violence. It also shows boys that they’re not responsible for their own behaviour.

A recent art exhibition titled What Were You Wearing? at the University of Kansas, pairs sexual assault survivors’ accounts with clothing matching the description of what they were wearing when attacked. It interrogates the common misconception that survivors’ appearances “provoke” sexual violence. The inclusion of children’s clothing in the exhibit is particularly troubling. It reveals links between the logic informing dress codes that target girls and victim-blame assault survivors.

One might be tempted to think this sexist practice only affects “certain kinds” of girls or women. However, in just the past two months, three public figures —television meteorologist Kelsey McEwen and MPs Catherine McKenna and Celina Caesar-Chavannes — have confronted appearance-based gender discrimination. After receiving a body-shaming tweet calling her maternity clothing “disgusting,” McEwen told viewers women’s bodies should not be a public concern.

Not long after, McKenna challenged politician Gerry Ritz’s use of a gendered stereotype (“climate Barbie”) to describe her appearance and devalue her societal contributions. And, in her parliamentary address, Caesar-Chavannes discussed the prevalence of body-shaming, and wore cornrowed extensions in solidarity with those who’ve experienced discrimination because of their hairstyles, headscarves or bodies.

Enough is enough. It’s time for people of all genders to think about the messages we send girls and women. Actively working to remove implicit cultural, gender and racial biases from our dress codes and attitudes toward girls and women affirms their personhood and inherent value.

Even though most of us may never have public platforms like McEwen, McKenna, and Caesar-Chavannes we still have a responsibility to each other to make a difference within our spheres of influence. Our future depends on it.


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Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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