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Dress Codes Disguise The Real Bullying Problems

05/03/2013 02:50 EDT | Updated 07/03/2013 05:12 EDT
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upset teenage girl with friends ...

Bullying is a terrible problem. It is clear that bullying can have tragic consequences. Bullies come in many shapes and sizes, in many ages, and from many walks of life. We need to be vigilant and we need to work toward solutions. But we must also avoid looking for simplistic solutions to complex problems.

For some reason, when people talk about bullying in schools, the issue of clothing often arises. Many of us have been embarrassed, singled-out, or even humiliated by fellow students for wearing apparel that does not conform to what the group of "popular" students deems to be appropriate. This could entail clothing that is unusual, or the "wrong" brand, the "wrong" style, or simply not the chosen colour or fabric currently in fashion. And it can be fairly difficult to know in advance which clothing will pass muster.

A number of schools have decided that this problem can be solved by instituting a uniform or a dress code that lists approved colours that may be worn. To many people, this sounds like a reasonable solution to the pervasive problem of bullying. To people who actually experience bullying, it can look ridiculous, if not dangerous.

While it is certainly true that many bullies act like chickens that peck the one in the flock with a feather that sticks up, most don't need the feather to help them find a victim. There is no shortage of "reasons" that victims are selected to be bullied. They could be small or large; they could have high marks or low marks; they could be poor or wealthy; they could be gay or straight; they could be religious or secular; they could be sexually active or virgins. The list goes on, but in short, virtually any characteristic or criterion will suffice if a bully is intent on finding a victim.

While schools want and need to prevent and to address the pernicious problem of bullying, they do not in fact, have very much control over most of the criteria listed above. If their purpose is to protect people likely to be targeted by bullies, removing the feather that sticks up is not going to be effective. There are just too many feathers.

But how could a uniform requirement or dress code be dangerous? It may not be effective to prevent bullying, but can it hurt? Well, yes it can. For many students, their "feathers" are the way in which they express themselves. Tattoos, coloured hair, piercings, unusual clothing, headgear or footwear, and the music they listen to are all ways in which people let us know that they are special, unique individuals. After all, freedom of expression is not only for writers and artists. It is a right guaranteed to each of us.

What happens when the school itself indicates that variations in appearance are unacceptable? What happens when we, through our actions, tell students that only people who look like them are safe to associate with? If you ask schools why they want to introduce dress codes or uniforms, they almost always say the reason is safety. They tell us that we need to identify the intruders or strangers in our midst, that we need to protect our students from being bullied or humiliated for wearing clothes that differ from the accepted "norm." Does this mean we only respect those who look like the "norm"? Isn't this what armed forces do? Armed forces wear uniforms so that we can tell "them" from "us." We know to respect and trust "us" and learn to be very suspicious of "them." Is this what we want our schools to institute?

A very real danger lies in believing that a problem is solved when appearances change. Instead of looking at the root causes of bullying -- lack of empathy, inability to see the dignity and humanity in everyone, belief that kindness is a weakness, and other such attitudes -- we turn to more visible attributes. There is certainly no quick fix that will change the attitudes that lead to bullying. But if we pat ourselves on the back for addressing the problem of bullying when we institute dress codes and uniforms, we may be blinding ourselves to the very real and complex nature of a problem that frequently goes undetected or is ignored by those in authority.

If we could stop bullies from tormenting us merely by changing our clothes, we would surely have done so a long time ago.

Canadian Bullying Victims