The End Dress Codes Collective is looking for stories about dress code discipline in the Toronto District School Board. Browse our archive of anecdotes, and get in touch if you can add to it. Anonymous contributions are welcome, and we won’t post your story to the site if you don’t want us to.
I was pretty outgoing in high school. I was really involved in extracurriculars, and I feel like I was fairly well-known both because I was social and because I was one of the few openly queer students when I came to the school in grade nine. And I ran Rainbow, our queer/straight alliance, for most of the time I was there.
I was also a pretty weird dresser. In grade ten, my go-to outfit was a pair of highwaisted shorts, usually denim, or a pair of men’s trousers that I had cut into shorts. I would wear tights or stockings beneath them, usually brightly coloured ones or ones with a fun pattern. Sometimes fishnets, or sometimes the tights would be ripped. And then I would wear some kind of tank top or t-shirt tucked into my shorts, with an oversized men’s button-up unbuttoned over top. This was around the time I got in the most trouble with the dress code, which is kind of funny because I was actually wearing so much clothing. It always felt like so many layers.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how this look came together. I was really into thrift and vintage shopping and I bought a lot of my wardrobe from places like Value Village and stores in Kensington Market. So I had a lot of weird pieces. I think mainly I had anxiety about presenting too femininely and not being read as queer and this was my way of presenting as queer.
In grade nine I mostly got in trouble for wearing tops and dresses that revealed too much cleavage. Once in the middle of a grade nine English class my teacher asked me to pull up the front of my dress. I don’t remember if she used words or just gestured, but I was annoyed by the fact that she was addressing it in the middle of a class. It was probably late May, it was hot, and I was wearing a very normal crew-neck dress that anyone else could have gotten away with wearing. I felt like I was being targeted because of the kind of body I have — fat, curvy, hypersexualized, etc. I felt like if my breasts weren’t the size they were it wouldn’t be an issue.
I remember arriving to a dance at the school in the middle of winter. I arrived with my jacket zipped up and the teacher who was ushering in students at the front door, who I didn’t really know and had never been taught by, stopped me and spoke to me in this accusatory tone and wanted to know what I was wearing under my jacket. Nothing came of it, I was let into the dance, but I felt like I was being policed.
I started to feel like I was being harassed by staff at the school. In grade ten I remember I would devise different routes to getting to my classes without having to pass through the main doors where the principal and vice principals stood. But eventually I was pulled out of class one day and had to meet with the whole admin team, and my mom was called. I was told I was attracting the wrong kind of attention and I had all this potential that I was squandering with my choice of outfits. On that day they took issue with the fact that I was wearing a beige tank top that was too similar to the colour of my skin. And they took issue with the fact that I’d been wearing lacy tank tops and camisoles that to them looked like lingerie even though they’d be layered on top of another tank top or t-shirt. And they took issue with the length of my shorts, even though I was wearing tights underneath.
I was really angry. I thought it was all a bit absurd. I remember sitting in the meeting with them and absolutely fuming. I was also nervous and a bit shaky because I was experiencing this feeling of being in trouble. But I was very confrontational. I remember being pretty blunt and saying to them that I knew we wouldn’t be having the conversation we were having if I had smaller breasts, if I had a different body. And I brought up that I didn’t understand why my shorts were an issue when my skin wasn’t even visible. Things like that. They didn’t really address these things. The principal just kept reiterating that they had my best interests in mind and that I was attracting negative attention to myself.
I definitely know that my anger came from knowing that the dress code was disproportionately enforced upon girls. (One of my friends who was a dude would always come to school in muscle tops, or in this shirt with guns all over it, and no one ever said anything to him.) And that there was this victim-blaming, violent logic behind it that suggested girls were responsible for how their male peers and other men in the school treated them. But I don’t know how much of this I was actually able to articulate. I was just really frustrated and disheartened. I felt like I was this good student doing good things in our school, and all of that was being derailed by this panic over what I was wearing.
I think after this happened I felt like I had no choice but to change the way I was dressing. It didn’t seem like this would stop happening and I found it all a bit exhausting. I started wearing leggings and button-ups and oversized sweaters mostly. When it was warmer out I still wore the shorts I always had and I’m sure I was still showing cleavage fairly often. There were a few times when teachers called me out for cleavage or said something about my bra straps. I remember once a teacher who came to Rainbow meetings actually tucked my bra strap into my shirt for me, which I thought was really inappropriate. But my mom, who is very much an “I’d like to speak to the manager” kind of woman, had spoken to the principal very sternly. I think she said something along the lines of “I won’t tolerate my daughter being targeted and intimidated.” That probably helped, because the administration knew dealing with me in the same way again would be a bit of a headache for them.
The dress code felt like such a big deal to me at the time. It truly felt like this awful oppressive force in my life and I think some of my experiences of being coded were kind of traumatic for me. Both because the focus on my body and clothing felt invasive, and because it genuinely unsettled me that these adults with a bunch of power over young people didn’t recognize how inappropriate some of the ways they were enforcing the dress code were. I graduated five years ago, but I’m still bitter that the dress code and the drama that surrounded it ate up a bunch of my time and energy, and that it lies at the center of a handful of shitty memories from that time.
I still care about this issue because I still recognize it to be this really unfair way that young women and queer students and students of colour have their bodies and choices policed. I think the enforcement of a dress code just distracts from students’ growth and success. There needs to be less of an unhealthy obsession with how young people choose to adorn their bodies. I still think my anger was justified and I actually think I did a really great job not internalizing the oppressive, body shamey, victim blamey things that were said to me. I dress very differently now but I still have a lot of empathy for my fifteen-year-old self. I still remember being her very clearly, which I guess is why I’m just as anti-dress code as ever.
Katelyn is studying English Literature and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. She is passionate about public libraries, selfies, and holding babies.