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 quick to join lots of clubs and sign up up for different events and opportunities. I was really engaged with the school newspaper. I was also super dedicated to our Gender-Sexuality Alliance. Early on in high school I sort of became my school’s poster child for queerness just by being vocally out, so I ran with it and genuinely enjoyed being as visible as I was. I was more interested in extracurriculars than academics, though I managed to do well pretty well in both aspects.
I think my leaning towards more politically charged extracurriculars started with my interest in LGBTQ+ politics. I remember reading about queer activism around the seventh grade and feeling like I couldn’t sit around and not do anything to help, but I also didn’t know how to take action. The summer before high school I visited Washington, D.C. with my mom, and one day while we were walking around the city I saw volunteers with clipboards asking for signatures regarding something related to same-sex marriage. I kept looking back at them, kept wanting to go and ask how I could help, but I didn’t. So when I entered high school, a newspaper seemed like the perfect place to at least voice my concerns, if nothing else. It felt like a good way to start helping out.
My wardrobe never broke my high school’s dress code, so I was never personally called out. However, by the second semester of my grade eleven year, almost all of my friends were being dress coded. The moment that tipped me over the edge was when I witnessed one female identified student being lectured by a few female teachers on her clothing choices. The slut-shaming was what I found most problematic — lots of talk of how the student wanted to be perceived by her male peers and the level of respect she had for herself. It was nauseating to me. That was when I first talked seriously with a friend about all the dress coding that was going on. There was a level of urgency to that conversation. My friend and I wanted to take the matter into our own hands.
Spring 2015 was truly one of my favourite semesters. After having that initial conversation of, “hey, this isn’t right, something’s got to be done,” we were on the lookout for stories of students getting dress-coded. We kind of added them all to our mental archives, while still trying to figure out what we were going to do about it. Then one day in mid-spring a friend of ours told us their account of being dress-coded that day, and I think we just wanted to do something right then, right there. We landed on the idea of putting up posters around the school with messages like, “My body, my choice,” and “A girl’s clothing choices do not dictate the amount of respect she deserves.” That afternoon my friend used up all his print credits in class to print out posters with those messages on them, I got duct tape from a couple different teachers, then we met up after school and waited until most people had gone home to start putting them up. All the posters were gone by the morning, but the next day we printed some more and quickly put them up again during lunch. Those were also taken down, but that was almost a good sign for us — there was pushback because there was clearly a problem.
At this point we wanted to do something on a bigger scale to make change. With the help of a staff ally, we started a committee dedicated to changing the dress code. The next school year, we added two more members to our committee, and the four of us wrote a short presentation on the problems we had with the dress code. After many, many edits, we finally sat down with our principal and made our case.
The presentation went smoothly, and a few weeks later we sat down with the principal again for a followup meeting. Our expectation was that the prohibition on hair picks, which we argued was racist, would be removed from the code immediately, and that the rest of the code would be revised over the following school year. To our surprise and dismay, the principal told us hair picks would remain prohibited. Suddenly we all went off script, making the same arguments we had made before, but this time with less patience. There was no reason for it to stay, and our rapid-fire arguments and urgent tones communicated that loud and clear. Eventually, we convinced the principal (again) to cut picks from the code. It was both a small victory, and an important one, because it was the first.
Afterwards I felt like a total badass, because it was kind of like a scene out of a movie. Somehow we all spoke incredibly articulately, in a very fast and well-choreographed way. We knew exactly what we wanted to leave that room hearing, and we made it pretty clear that we weren’t leaving without hearing it. That we were forces to be reckoned with, people worth taking seriously. I felt pretty invincible, to be honest.
In university I’m pretty focused on doing LGBTQ+ related work. I’m part of student groups like NewPRIDE and LGBTOUT, and I’m the co-chair of a leadership conference for LGBTQ+ students through U of T’s Sexual & Gender Diversity Office, where I also work as a weekly discussion group facilitator. The climate at U of T right now surrounding non-binary gender identities is tense. I’ve spoken to high school students who have voiced concern about attending U of T because they don’t know if they’ll be able to use gender neutral pronouns in class, or if they’ll even feel safe on campus around certain peers. The discourse around NB identities has meant that now more than ever, it’s important to have spaces where queer and trans* folks can voice concerns, decompress, access resources, get peer support, and simply know that we have their backs.
One reason I fought the dress code was to give back power to students by letting them wear what felt right to them. I feel like my activism work now is also motivated by the desire to give back power to queer and trans* folks who have been made to feel so belittled over the past year and a half (and historically, always). I don’t see why anyone should have the right to tell other people how to dress or what pronouns to use or who to be. We should be allowed to make our own choices.
Mahfam is studying neuroscience, psychology, and sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto. On the weekends, she is busy being a global lesbian icon.