Dress Coda

I suppose it’s time for a confession, but I have to be covert about it; devious -labyrinthine, to the extent that my disclosure may fly in the face of current trends. I may be incorrectly accused of retrograde thinking -or, horrors, of prejudice. Discrimination.

Well, perhaps there is a soupçon of babbling admixed in my preference, but only in my desire to avoid the frequent tendency to judge in advance, or on insufficient, and perhaps even faulty evidence. There comes a time when freedom from must be protected against freedom to. Freedom should not be interpreted as license; I very much doubt that many of us would push for the freedom, say, to drive on the wrong side of the road. Some freedoms, surely, are worthier of advocacy than others.

And in some venues, freedom may have to yield a little space to fairness and justice. Sometimes freedom simply occupies a space that others cannot occupy -even if they wanted to. I’m referring, of course, to that flagship of fashion: the school. Inhabited as it is by those who are still dependent on group-think, still on their headlong dash for identity and, let’s face it, peer approval, it is a cauldron for fashion. A furnace of innovation where nuance triumphs, and failure to adhere to unspoken rules may result in isolation or exile.

The rules often include behavioural expectations, quirks of special language, and dress codes. It is what groups of young humans do; it is part of growing up, and it is expected that they will stretch boundaries and rebel at what they consider to be arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions. It may be frustrating for those of us who have passed unscathed through the tumult of that phase of youth, but not all are so lucky.

Fashions, for example, may be not only capricious, but also expensive luxuries that some parents either cannot, or choose not to afford, leaving the child in a quandary. Being accepted -welcomed- into a group may be jeopardized. Nobody wants to be ostracized; few feel comfortable in being regarded as different.

I was interested therefore, in an article in the Conversation that addressed the problem but approached it from a different perspective: https://theconversation.com/its-time-to-address-the-hidden-agenda-of-school-dress-codes-97600  

It starts out conventionally enough, ‘Normally, what children can and cannot wear in schools is explicitly noted in school policies or implicitly implied by broader cultural or societal norms.’ But then it goes on to assert that ‘The problem with trying to develop a set of guidelines for school dress code policies is that the implementation or restriction of dress is just not about the clothes that kids wear. Dress code policies are mired in larger contested debates that have to do with gender identity, race and sexuality reflective of a broader public discourse.’

Fair enough -there are larger issues than simply reflecting the dominant community ideology. So the author, Dianne Gereluk at the University of Calgary, goes on to acknowledge other facets of school dress codes, namely, ‘Most obviously, the nature of many dress code violations interconnects to issues of gender and sexual identity. The vast majority of cases have targeted girls and LGBTQ youth on the basis that what one might wear reveals too much — that it’s sexually suggestive, distracting for other students or offensive to the local and cultural norms of the community.’ Further, she goes on to suggest that ‘girls have taken the brunt of dress codes’ and that ‘The infractions for noncompliance exacerbate the shaming of girls’ self-perception of their worth.’

And her answer? ‘If educators and policymakers are genuinely worried about the safety of their students or the decorum of dress codes, schools could simply follow the steps of one school administrator from Evanston Township High School in Illinois. The high school’s fundamental “rule” mandated that 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 yet inevitably provocative dress code policy removes the broader contested aspects of gender, sexual identity, faith or systemic discrimination.’

Really? Merely covering the parts mentioned still leaves an awful lot of provocative skin if anybody chose to show it -and you can bet they would. Also, I think it still panders to the clarion call of Fashion, albeit in an impoverished attempt to pretend the schools are still catering to freedom of choice -however watered-down: “You can dress however expensively, or outrageously as you want… as long as you don’t show those things!”

I suspect I have travelled too widely outside of North America, because rather than looking to Illinois to solve the problem, I would look to… Well New Zealand, for one, is a good model: school uniforms for both boys and girls. Nobody in school can out-fashion anybody else. And since everybody has to wear the same thing, there’s no shame from differing clothing styles. No obvious financial stigmatization. What they wear on their own time, of course, is up to individuals, just as who they decide to hang around with.

I know that many private schools here in Canada and the U.S.A. long ago mandated school uniforms, and although to many people, it is a manifestation of elitism, this would no longer be a problem if every school -public and private- required it. Each school would presumably have its own, unique design, and this in itself might become a source of pride and a perhaps a fashion statement of its own.

It has the advantage, too, of not being able to demarcate -at school, at least- those difficult issues of gender, sexual identity, or even faith about which Dr. Gereluk was so concerned. Perhaps items like the hijab, or maybe even the niqab, could be incorporated into the uniform, although I suspect each school would require community or religious consultation to accommodate their concerns.

And yes, no doubt there would be initial resistance to such a major shift, but it need not be mandated universally, and all at once. Fashions change, styles morph -and people adapt. Allow me to paraphrase a sentence I remember from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: New customs, though they be ever so ridiculous, yet are followed.

The Asexual

Well the annual Pride Toronto Festival has come and gone again; we had one here in Vancouver as well, but this year’s Toronto iteration apparently broke all records for attendance, parade, and participation. I have to admit to my own feeling of pride that Society is making such progress in accepting –even welcoming- diversity. Especially, it would seem, in Canada.

The LGBTQ (have I got those initials in the right order?) community has done a wonderful job of publicizing and integrating their orientations in the public’s mind. Gay marriage –an unthinkable concept only a few years ago- is now accepted in most areas with barely a glance. That a loving couple should be able to legally dedicate their lives to each other with all the rights normally accorded to a marriage seems now so obvious and compelling that it is hard for many of us to countenance a time when it was restricted to heterosexuals.

But the orientation diversity has not run its course; there are other voices finally audible now that the din of battle has dimmed somewhat –voices that I, at least, had not heard before. Readers of this blog may recall my essay on Gender in January 2013, when I had to admit to an age-dependent naïveté concerning gendered public washrooms –you know, designating separate rooms for male and female toilets. I had always thought of the arrangement as being eminently sensible until disavowed of this by a patient, indignant that she had to accept the arbitrary (she felt) assignation of the female room by the accident of her (unchosen) chromosomal array. So I felt that I had witnessed the final frontier of the orientation choices: none. No-name toilets for the sexually unassigned.

I was wrong –again. My innocence was dragged to the surface once more when I heard a CBC radio interview with a woman who was feeling unaccepted even by the LGBTQ group because she identified herself as asexual –i.e. none of the above. Well, to consider oneself as a non-participant is fair enough I suppose, but the absence of something really doesn’t give one much to identify with I would have thought. How ignorant of me; how unsophisticated! I mean there was an unfilled niche there just begging for attention… And there is a growing community of asexuals, some of whom apparently marched in this year’s Toronto Pride Festival parade.

But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. As with most issues, I am often exposed to them first in my office. And under those circumstances, they don’t seem odd or aberrant –just interesting.

Thinking about it now, I suppose I was first introduced to asexuality several years ago -during an investigation of infertility of all things.

There are many causes of infertility. Some are complicated and require referral to a specialized infertility clinic for more intensive investigation and treatment. Others are less onerous, less worrisome and after taking a thorough history and doing a detailed physical exam need only a few simple investigations followed by a large dollop of patience and reassurance. Needless to say, it is this latter group that I prefer, if only because I feel that dialogue is still useful; I get a chance to show that listening, interacting and empathizing is part of Medicine.

Of course, sometimes the reasons for infertility seem blindingly obvious -like the frequency of intercourse. Infrequency, I mean…

“Oh, we don’t have sex very often, doctor,” the sweat shirt and blue jean clad woman said almost proudly. And when one of my eyebrows crept up involuntarily –I try to stay neutral, but sometimes I am weak- she scowled and explained that she didn’t really like sex. “It’s not who I am,” she added, staring at me defiantly. “Once a month is plenty…”

I intended to follow up with a question about whether or not she found the act painful, or whether there might be some impediment to her enjoyment of sex but I felt the mood change in the room. Or at least the mood on her face changed.

I thought maybe I should play the ‘please clarify’ card rather than the ‘I don’t understand’ one which seems to annoy people nowadays. I pretended to read from the notes I had just written. “You say you are only sexually active once a month…?”

“Only when I’m ovulating.” She interrupted before I could finish the question. “That’s when the best chance to conceive exists,” she continued, as if perhaps this was a thought about fertility that hadn’t occurred to me.

I nodded in agreement, but my expression must have remained puzzled because she sighed and sat back in her seat as if exasperated. “Not everybody enjoys sex, you know. For some of us it is simply a means to an end: a baby.” She continued to stare at me –defying me to disagree. “I don’t enjoy washing dishes either, but if I want to have dinner…” she added somewhat cryptically.

I put my pen down on the chart and decided to sit back in my seat as well.  “Well, so far everything seems completely normal,” I said helpfully, hoping to diffuse the tension. I was trying to reassure her that she would likely be able to conceive –but with such infrequent exposure to sperm, might have to be patient or change her frequency. “You may just have to start washing more dishes,” I added carefully. I thought it was a humorous and inoffensive rejoinder to her example. I said it with a smile and with what I hoped was a twinkle in my eye. But to tell you the truth, I couldn’t resist. 

She shot forward in her seat, her eyes narrowed, and I could see her face hardening like concrete. “I had hoped you of all people would understand, doctor!” She said the ‘doctor’ word through clenched teeth.

“I’m sorry…” It slipped through my mouth involuntarily as it often does when I’ve inadvertently crossed some line or other. I actually meant it as a query –as in, ‘Pardon me?’- but when her face relaxed a little from my apparent capitulation I decided to lie fallow. I had no idea what had enraged her, however. Had I been Aspergerially inappropriate and insensitive? Or had she wanted some other more easily acceptable regimen?

She got up from her chair, picked up the little backpack she had worn on arrival and walked to the door. There she hesitated and I could see her tension dissolving. She turned to me and almost whispered, “I’m sorry, too, doctor. It’s just that I’m an Asexual.” She said it as if it were a noun rather than an adjective. And then she left –not angry, not frustrated… More sad that I hadn’t known.

I never saw her again, and I may never understand what she was going through, but I hope things have worked out. I hope she eventually had the child she so desperately wanted and that they went to this Toronto Pride Festival to watch the parade. And I hope that she has at last achieved the recognition and validation of her orientation that she obviously needed. The one that society evidently needs to offer.