"I was recently asked what I thought about the media furor surrounding a course offered by South Thames College (in London, England) called ‘Sexy Heels In The City’, which uses taxpayers’ money (aka public funding) to teach teenagers how to walk in high heels, shop for shoes and properly perambulate a catwalk.
Well, *obviously* it’s stupid. But at least one can take solace from the fact that this is a college which also offers courses in astrology, seashell beading, and cupcake decorating for children’s birthday parties. It is, therefore, not to be taken that seriously (even though it is actually one of the top vocational colleges in London). Brits can also take solace from the fact that at least their government hasn’t managed to achieve the criminal incompetence involved in wasting over $1.1 billion on unlicensed security personnel and sonic cannons necessary to protect the $2 million fake duck ponds that it’s building in Canada’s largest city, which it’s also shutting down until the duck pond is finished and the beach party over. Anyhow I digress. But with just cause.
Unfortunately, universities are beginning to offer all too many of these sorts of courses, generally as part of their ‘community outreach’ initiatives. Memorial University of Newfoundland, for instance, offers a “Dining Etiquette” course each semester (I actually signed up for this but then dropped it when I saw the unexciting options on the four-course meal that accompanies it), in addition to courses in “Wine-Tasting” and “Scotch-Tasting” (the latter would be more appropriate for South Thames College, which was in fact founded in 1895 thanks to a whisky tax that was used to generate the revenue to build it).
Of course, at the same time the growing majority of university instructors are underpaid, contractual and lack decent benefits of any sort; moreover, universities are closing their rural campuses and eliminating subsidies for youth or seniors (who used to be allowed to take courses for free at most universities). It’s little surprise, then, that the only people left to take “outreach” courses are the high-earning Scotch drinkers who would like to learn better how to drink their Scotch, or the borderline abusive, manic corporate parents who think their daughters must learn how to wear heels to survive in life.
Courses like ‘Dining Etiquette’ and ‘Sexy Heels...’ are, astoundingly enough, often defended by the campuses that offer them as teaching future politicians and businesspeople the “non-book-based life skills” deemed necessary to thrive in their respective fields. So what exactly is wrong with expecting to see high heels in the world of high business?
Well let me introduce a concept, and it’s called ‘discriminatory representation’. It refers, quite simply, to the use of images or ideas that convey potentially negative stereotypes about groups of people. For instance, television shows that depict women in bikinis, or aboriginals in war paint. And it’s increasingly being used to call out, and prohibit, the depiction of such stereotypes.
Now those obsessed with free speech probably recoil in horror at the thought of banning bikinis, war paint and blackface. Well, ensconced in their happy-bubble-universe of rainbows and sunshine where nobody suffers discrimination, they *would*. The rest of us are concerned about the real world, where stereotypes shape people’s judgment and interactions with each other and manifest themselves in discriminatory practices that are violent, hurtful and divide our society in deeper and deeper ways.
The use of anti-discrimination laws to combat these stereotypes – let’s stick with the issue of stereotypical women’s dress for now – is growing. A 2004 human rights case in British Columbia involved a female employee at a nightclub, who was asked to wear a bikini for a special promotional event one night at the bar. She refused, relations with her employer (who assigned her the worst jobs as punishment and urged her to quit because he would keep making life difficult for her) became strained, and she filed a discrimination suit which she won. She was awarded over $6000 in lost wages, tips, and as compensation for injuries to her sense of dignity (she had meanwhile obtained a different job; otherwise her damages might have been more). In this and other cases (including a similar one in Ontario), the key to these dress codes being ‘discriminatory’ is that the requirement to wear a bikini (or high heels, or skirts instead of pants) was only directed at the women in the workplace, and not the men. A dress code that applied to both, would not have been considered discriminatory (i.e., no t-shirts, or no body piercings). Quebec – as usual – is even more progressive: a dress code requiring female employees to wear skirts and high heels was struck down by a tribunal in 1997, on the basis that it insulted the dignity of those workers by requiring outfits that drew attention to aspects of their body. In a loosely related case, a human rights tribunal also ruled against a Canadian grocery chain that required its employees to tuck in the shirts of their uniforms. Employees who described themselves as “full-bodied” argued this drew unwanted attention to their...bodies...and that they deserved the right to untuck their shirts, since it caused no hardship to the employer. The human rights tribunal agreed.
But back to bikinis and high heels. Increasingly, organizations, companies, and sometimes even state governments are beginning to recognize discriminatory representation and outlaw it by law or policy. The Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union, for instance, passed a policy outlawing ‘discriminatory representation’ in its services, events and operations; this policy was used to force the campus bar to ban the annual appearance of the “Bud Girls” during its Superbowl broadcast (as well as other appearances of bikini-clad performers). Sheffield College in the UK – perhaps a competitor to our Sexy Heels College? – has an excellent ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ which in addition to banning harassment between and among staff and students, also bans the use of textbooks or other teaching materials which contain images or other forms of ‘discriminatory representation’.
At the national level, Italy recently established a commission to monitor the portrayal of women on state-funded television. The anti-sexism watchdog will report to government “if it spots too much flesh or female stereotyping...The commission is bestowed with powers to censure programme-makers.” In France, the governing party has introduced legislation to ban websites and media that promote anorexia or bulimia through the encouragement or valorization of excessive dieting, as well as legislation requiring media (such as magazines) to publicly identify and label all photographs that are airbrushed or otherwise electronically modified (in order to highlight the artificial nature of these images which often form the basis of body image ideals). The Liberal Democrats – who are now part of the governing coalition in the UK – also introduced bills in the past demanding the government label electronically modified media images, particularly of women.
What do we conclude about all this? Discriminatory representation is pervasive and bad. A course on how to wear high heels is silly and a waste of money; but the notion that high heels should be considered professional attire is dangerously sexist, discriminatory and contested in human rights and labour law. But it’s been patchy progress. Last year, The Excalibur (York University’s campus paper) decided a fashion show was the best way to promote its cutting-edge journalists (remember back when campus papers used to be progressive? You know, just after the Internet was invented?), American Apparel advertising reps are using public billboards to live out some weird Freudian fantasy that nobody can quite figure out, and now South Thames College pulls this on us.
What do we do about it? Raise awareness that discriminatory representation is a problem and pass policies against it. Does YOUR workplace have a dress code? If so, check to make sure it’s not discriminatory. If it is, file a complaint. Does YOUR university, students’ union or other organization have a policy banning discriminatory representation? If it doesn’t, then start the move to make it happen."