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 just trying to fit in for the first two years of high school. But as grade eleven rolled around I started to become more comfortable with myself. I expanded my social circle, I became more outgoing.
I was never a crazy dresser. Part of me wanted to be; I was always really intrigued by fashion, style. But I never really stepped outside the norm. I wore a lot of black — I think it was partly me trying to seem as heterosexual as possible!
I was never dress coded. It never crossed my mind as something I had to think about. We learned about the dress code at the beginning of the year; I associated it with a boring lecture I had to sit through every September, along with fire drill procedures and how you couldn’t eat on the second floor. Retrospectively, I recognize that I was incredibly privileged to be able to not think about it.
My first “personal” encounter with the dress code was when I heard about a classmate I knew that had been told her tank top was distracting to boys. It was around the time I was trying to come out to people, and I still wasn’t completely comfortable with myself, so hearing this story was kind of unnerving but I wasn’t really in a place to reflect on why I felt unnerved. A while later, I did think about it when someone informed me about the rules on spaghetti straps. I thought to myself, “Okay so girls are clearly being targeted here.” I started to hear more and more dress coding stories and realized that, as a cisgender male, I literally never had to worry about the code, whereas girls were being called out over and over again, for the smallest, randomest infractions. I always had more friends who identified as girls than friends who identified as guys, so when I actually started paying attention, the sexism was really evident.
Some of my friends would resist the code through evasion. Trying to cover up when seeing a teacher in the hall, or hiding from particularly conservative staff, was common practice. The stories I was told made it clear that being dress coded was often an aggravating and emotional experience. The more I heard, the angrier I got.
The final straw was when my close friend told me she was dress coded by the principal seconds before walking into a particularly difficult bio test. She was pissed off and said she couldn’t think about anything else during the test. That’s when I thought, “This is absolutely one hundred per cent not okay.”
This was around grade eleven. By then I had kind of accepted myself, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the dress code was stopping other people from accepting themselves. And I realized that the code was homophobic — because it assumed all boys are heterosexual — and that hit close to home I guess. I think I’m now aware that it probably made the coming out process harder — even just coming out to myself. Anyway, I was just like, here’s an issue that’s blatantly wrong, let’s fix it!
I decided I’d write my grade eleven English speech about it. But I knew it might not be perceived as relevant to our school. I wanted quotes, I wanted evidence that would show how real the problem was. Also, I knew I couldn’t just do a speech on dress codes as a person privileged enough to never have been coded before. I wanted to include the voices and actions of people who were affected by the code daily.
So I conducted a social experiment. I asked some friends, mostly girls, but some boys, too, if they would be comfortable breaking the dress code in particularly apparent ways for one day. And I gave them a few questions they could ask the staff members who coded them. “What about my clothes is wrong?” “Why is the dress code important?”
So everyone showed up that day in clothes violating the code. They wore crop tops, bralettes, short shorts, low-cut dresses, low-cut tops, tank tops, et cetera. (To be honest, they actually all looked amazing.) And before lunchtime, I had almost every female-identifying participant running up to me in the hallways to relay what had happened. The stories were beyond my expectations. They were told their clothes were too sexual; boys will be distracted; everyone in the room is uncomfortable. It was honestly repulsive. One friend was on the verge of tears after being humiliated by a teacher who accused her of “valuing sex over education.” Most teachers got visibly angry when questioned about the reasoning behind the code. One friend was told to go to the office as soon as she started asking questions.
And none of the boys were even looked at twice. One of them very badly wanted someone to call him out on his tank top, he wanted the opportunity to ask his questions. So he went around looking for teachers and initiating conversations with them. He even had a short conversation with the principal and a vice principal. Alas, no one called him out. He was pretty disappointed.
I wrote about all of this in my speech. The response from my classmates was really great. It was like many people had been thinking about it for a while and had finally heard someone say it out loud. Of course, there were some who disagreed, but I think even they were shocked by the results of the experiment. The class had to vote on who got to present their speech at the grade-wide speech competition and I ended up getting the most votes, so I polished it up and presented it to a larger audience later that year. A lot of the students who saw it there came up to me saying they loved it. I think after that the word kind of spread, and me and my friends got a lot of people coming up to us to tell us when they got dress coded from then on.
I knew achieving real change would be a slow process considering the apathetic response from a lot of staff. But the response I got from students was really heartwarming. I found out about a lot of people who felt similarly about the dress code and it made me feel like we had numbers on our side. People were irritated, people were angry, people were fed up. People actually cared. The word was spreading.
Yasir writes for the McGill Daily. A reckless spender, you’ll find him purchasing anything mini-sized.