Dress codes aren’t necessarily bad. While they’re rarely the most fun rules to follow, they can be used to set firm guidelines on what is and isn’t appropriate to wear in a shared space. But, like any other fair-weather rule, inconsistently enforced dress codes can become a tool for discrimination. And this is exactly what’s starting to happen at the University of Calgary’s fitness centre.
Two female students — Bobola Olayinka and Gorana Jeftic — were asked to leave the fitness centre in February for wearing sports bras. Staff claimed that their attire went against the gym’s dress code, and that they would have to leave the gym and change if they wanted to continue their workout. When the two students returned to the gym a second time wearing sports bras, fitness centre staff called security, who escorted them outside.
The gym’s staff were technically right. The fitness centre’s dress code does require visitors to wear a t-shirt, meaning that tank tops, sports bras and other open-sided shirts are prohibited. But wearing tank tops at the U of C gym is like smoking weed. Strictly speaking, it’s forbidden, but everyone does it anyways. And the people in charge usually don’t care — almost nobody gets in trouble for showing some extra skin at the fitness centre, regardless of their gender or appearance.
For the most part, this lack of enforcement works fine. This t-shirt-only dress code is overly restrictive when compared to other gyms, and few employees want to go through the trouble of kicking out every person who showed up with their shoulders showing.
So why were these two people singled out? Clearly, someone working at the gym thought they had gone too far. While others were also flagrantly breaking the rules, they were apparently breaking the rules just enough to require action. In other words, these students were punished because of someone’s personal judgement in the matter — not just because they were doing something wrong.
This is a never a good thing. When the decision to enforce or ignore a rule lies in the hands of individuals, there is a risk of this rule being unfairly applied to certain individuals or groups of people. Even if this bias is unconscious, certain people and types of apparel are more likely to be singled out than others.
This isn’t to say that the fitness centre employees that called security that day were raging misogynists — for all we know, they may have been as confused about their dress code rules as everyone else at the gym. But the fact remains that, out of the hundreds of students breaking the rules, only two people were punished. And they were both women wearing similar attire.
So it’s no wonder the people asked to leave the fitness centre felt like they were being treated unfairly — it’s because they were literally being treated unfairly. A rule applied to them that didn’t apply to other people. This would make anyone frustrated.
Both Oyalinka and Jeftic have said that the experience made them feel uncomfortable, and that they won’t be coming back to exercise at the fitness centre. And if this trend continues, more people will start getting fed up with the fitness centre’s wishy-washy rules.
As a response to this debacle, Active Living claims they will review the fitness centre dress code this April. If they still don’t want patrons wearing sports bras, that’s their decision to make. But they either need to formalize this as a part of their stated rules, or start enforcing their current dress code fairly.
Because as it stands, the U of C’s fitness centre is governed by the whims and biases of whoever is running the front desk, instead of a coherent set of rules. It was only a matter of time before this resulted in people being treated unfairly, and this will continue to happen until something changes.
Sean Willett, Gauntlet Editorial Board