EDC Monthly: May

Each month we round up dress code (and dress code-adjacent) stories that we’ve encountered, or that we’ve been thinking about. Please send us suggestions!

On April 25th, we facilitated a workshop for students at the Action:reAction social justice conference. One of the topics of conversation was intersectional oppression: for example, the fact that dress codes that target women end up targeting women of colour especially.  The following day, this story about a report that found that dress codes in D.C. “make school disproportionately difficult for black girls” was published. The report was written by the National Women’s Law Center and twenty-one Black girls who are currently or were recently students in D.C. public schools. It includes sample dress code policies, and is full of the voices of students affected by these policies. It also includes policy recommendations — all of which are pertinent to the TDSB. Read it in full here — and then show it to your parents / teachers / principals, or your students / colleagues / admin, or your children / Parent Council / trustee, etc.!


Not Just Rumours is a group of student activists who are organizing in response to sexual misconduct by teachers in Ontario.

The students are now pressing for more action on incidents of sexual misconduct — defined as inappropriate behaviour or remarks of a sexual nature by the teacher towards one or more students that doesn’t meet the standard of sexual abuse, but that a reasonable person would expect to cause distress to a student, be detrimental to their physical or mental well-being or create a negative school environment.

On May 11th, they coordinated walkouts at three TDSB schools. Which, like, um, holy shit! Follow them on Twitter, like them on FB, sign their petition, gawk at their courage and coolness.


More stories of student resistance: at Essex District High School, Mallory Johnston was suspended for protesting the dress code (check out her awesome posters); in Grimsby, Annabella Serkhanian “could not stay silent, not this time. The quiet and poised girl exploded“; in Princeton, B.C., students sick of getting coded for showing bra straps staged a braless protest; at Cornell University, Letitia Chai took off her clothes in response to questions about the morality of short shorts; and in Tennessee, a student grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed a fellow student after he lifted up her dress without her consent.


Friend of EDC Shannon Salisbury lists “Eleven Reasons Why Watching ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ Was a Bad Life Choice.” Number seven speaks to the concerns of Not Just Rumours: “The collusion of the school staff in enabling [sexual misconduct by teachers] is super super accurate for too many.” Number eight is as follows:

Tangent related to 7 and not explicitly addressed in the series, I’m nowhere near the only person who was dress-coded by staff members for how my body filled my clothes, which, in case this is unclear, is itself a form of sexual harassment. When adults call out children and youth for their appearance, they are doing so after having sexualized those young people. This isn’t new, and it isn’t over.


Two years after trustee Jordan Watters raised the issue — and after sixteen public meetings and eight community presentations — the Greater Victoria School District adopted a new dress code policy.

In practice, it means students will be allowed to wear anything they choose so long as it conforms with “health and safety requirements for the intended activity”, and does not promote drugs or alcohol, display offensive images or language, or encourage discrimination.

Sounds reasonable to us! And as Board chairman Tom Ferris very reasonably pointed out:

There’s a limit to what you can do because you’re limited somewhat by the B.C. Human Rights Code . . . So it’s pretty hard to be restrictive and a lot of people were looking to get some kind of restrictive language in the actual dress part, like what can you or can’t you wear . . . If you look at the history of Canada, different cases across the country that have been contested, invariably any attempt to restrict dress has failed.

Now Edmonton Public Schools is considering a similar change to their dress codes approach — perhaps dissenters will find themselves limited by the Alberta Human Rights Act? Gee, the work of the End Dress Codes Collective sure would be easier if the TDSB were bound by the kind of human rights legislation they’ve got out west, am I right?!


Lastly, we looked at a York Region District School Board dress code earlier this week. The code is clearly sexist, despite the fact that — wait a second — the YRDSB is “firmly committed” to something called “the Ontario Human Rights Code“…

Oranges and Lemons: Dress Codes in the YRDSB

In some classrooms, children are taught the “Oranges and Lemons” (or “Apples and Onions”) method of giving feedback. It’s a good news / room-for-improvement news approach: oranges are sweet — they represent purely positive feedback; lemons are sour — they represent constructive criticism. Let’s use this approach to talk about dress codes in the York Region District School Board. We’ll start with the bad news.

Lemons: In some YRDSB classrooms, children are taught from kindergarten that if they are girls, and they experience harassment, it is their fault. A YRDSB parent recently contacted us and shared the dress code that is in place at their child’s K-3 YRDSB school. It states that students “are to come to school dressed modestly yet comfortably,” and is largely directed at girls:

No bare midriff, no visible undergarments, no short shorts (arm’s length including fingertips is a good measure), no spaghetti straps or low cut tank tops. Straps should be 3 fingers wide.

None of this is novel — we’ve seen it all before, and it’s egregious in any context. But in a K-3 context? Directed at children as young as three, and no older than nine? Talk about tart! (That’s tart as in sour, not as in slut — though certainly this dress code perpetuates tart-as-in-slut shaming!)

Oranges: The parent who reached out to us subsequently raised the issue at a Parent Council meeting. Perhaps they pointed out that the YRDSB’s own policies consistently refer to the OHRC. For example, #240 claims that “The Board is firmly committed to meeting its obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code”; #261 states that all Board policies will incorporate the principles of equity and inclusivity “consistent with the principles of the Ontario Human Rights Code”; and #635 lists the OHRC and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as considerations for developing a dress code — and states that all codes “must consider the diversity of the community in terms of . . . gender and other factors.” At any rate, the school principal acknowledged the issue and invited the parent to write a new code, to be voted on at the next Parent Council meeting. Sweet!

Perhaps the principal abhors slut shaming and victim blaming and has a vision of the school as a model of equitableness and a bastion of student liberation; or maybe the principal found themselves looking at a policy they’d never really reflected on before and intuited that it might not be legit legally. Whatever — the chance to create a new way of doing things is as sweet either way!


Our sample TDSB school-based codes all come from high schools — we’ve found it difficult to track down codes for junior and middle schools, even though we know that they exist. If you can contribute such a code, we’d be grateful. And if you want to talk about changing a code, in the TDSB or elsewhere, please reach out any time.

EDC Monthly: April

Each month we round up dress code (and dress code-adjacent) stories that we’ve encountered, or that we’ve been thinking about. Please send us suggestions!

Oppressive dress codes are bad, but anti-code student activism is the best. Sometimes this activism is underpinned by thoughtful organizing: see, for example, the work of Les Carrés Jaunes in Quebec. And sometimes it’s a spur of the moment expression of anger and frustration: check out Max and Jade’s clothing swap. Either way, it’s galvanizing.


Also in Quebec, girls in Gatineau were sent home for wearing ripped jeans.

Cédrik Coyle, 16, said he thinks there’s a double standard at the school because he wore ripped jeans to class earlier this week and he wasn’t asked to change.

“I really think sexism should stop,” he said.


In Florida, Lizzy Martinez called for a bracott after a school administrator gave her Band-Aids to cover her nipples (in addition to an undershirt and a t-shirt). Lizzy’s story reminds us so much of Dani’s experience in Toronto, especially this detail:

[School administrators] insisted that she was violating the school dress code. (The 2017-2018 Code of Student Conduct does not say bras must be worn by female students.)

(By the way, will someone please write an essay exploring what is implied by the Band-Aids in this story? Are nipples wounds?!) (Come to think of it, so many of these stories imply that female-presenting bodies are always already injured, are abrasions that must be constantly covered up though they’ll never heal, are sites, and sources, of trauma…)


At GM, CEO Mary Barra replaced a 10-page dress code with two words: “Dress appropriately.” Her premise is striking:

…if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them,” she said.

“But if you let people own policies themselves…it helps develop them.”

 

EDC VOICES: Mahfam

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.

The role of the guidance counsellor

One teacher-member of the End Dress Codes collective recently completed an Additional Qualifications course in Guidance and Career Counselling. The first reading assigned was the Executive Summary of the American School Counselor Association’s National Model — “which is a framework for a comprehensive, data-driven school counseling program.”

The Executive Summary is only three and a half pages long, and almost one full page is taken up by a breakdown of appropriate and inappropriate activities for school counsellors. We were struck by the fifth entry in this list of fourteen binaries: “providing counseling to students as to appropriate school dress” is, according to ASCA, an appropriate activity for school counsellors, while “sending students home who are not appropriately dressed” is an inappropriate activity.

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 11.09.36 AMThat seems reasonable. We have considered the possibility that guidance counsellors might be better suited to talk to students about what they wear than classroom teachers — and certainly the privacy of a guidance counsellor’s office is a better place for these discussions than the classroom, never mind the school hallway. However, we worry that ASCA is implying that counsellors should use their interpersonal skills to convince students to conform to their school’s dress code, while leaving administrators to dole out discipline. We worry that the implication is that, when meeting with students who seem to struggle to wear “appropriate school dress,” guidance counsellors should ask, in effect, “What is wrong with you?” — rather than, say, “What is wrong with our school’s appropriate dress policy?”

Later in the AQ course, excerpts from Intentional Interviewing and Counseling: Facilitating Client Development in a Multicultural Society were assigned. This text argues that when counsellors are working with clients from traditionally marginalized communities, “supportive counseling is not enough. For significant change to occur, prevention and social justice action are critical.” Within the guidance office, then, a counsellor should help students name and understand the systemic oppression they encounter; and within the school community, a counsellor should be involved in anti-oppression action.

The example that Intentional Interviewing gives to illustrate this part of a counsellor’s role is perfect (our emphasis):

When a female client discusses mistreatment and harassment by her supervisor, the issue of oppression of women should be named as such. The social justice perspective requires you to help her understand that the problem is not caused by her behavior or how she dresses. By naming the problem as sexism and harassment, you often free the client from self-blame and empower her for action. You can also support her in efforts to effect change in the workplace.

We doubt that this argument is compatible with ASCA’s assertion that “providing counseling to students as to appropriate school dress” is an appropriate activity for school counsellors. We argue that in the vast majority of cases, when a student is referred to a guidance counsellor because of their clothes, the counsellor’s role is to name the racist / sexist / heterosexist / victim blaming logic at work, and then to mobilize to fight this logic. If you are a guidance counsellor and you’d like to join us in this fight, we’d be happy to hear from you!

#EndDressCodes Friday Jam(s): Aye Nako

We’d argue vocerifously that Aye Nako’s Silver Haze is among the best albums of 2017. Over twelve dense, melodic, inventive tracks, the band grapples “with identity — the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality operate in differing ways for the four band members, and exploring these traumas together provides a sense of healing.” Sources of healing were, of course, welcome in 2017, as they are every year.

We’re posting a flawless live session the band performed in April, in which Jade and Mars reveal they live with a dog named Broccolini, and in which Joe plays a bass bearing the message “ARM TEENAGE GIRLS” — a sentiment that’s evergreen, but that feels especially urgent as this year comes to a close.

Clothes and coming out

Earlier this week we briefly discussed our feelings regarding University of Toronto blowhard Jordan Peterson. In short, we’re sick of hearing his voice!

A few weeks ago, two U of T student organizations, NewPRIDE and LGBTOUT, released a video on the theme of coming out. Ten students tell their stories — including one close friend of the End Dress Codes collective — and we could listen to their voices all day!

We were especially struck by Shai’s reference to his clothes in describing his post-coming out feelings:

The word I’m thinking about is expression. You can express yourself, you can be yourself. I mean I’m wearing bracelets and this awesome shirt I love. Before, when I was pretend straight, I was so focused on my image to everybody and trying to look as, I guess, stereotypically masculine as I could, and I hated it so much. I never got to have the closet that I wanted, or the room that I wanted, or the friends that I wanted, or anything that I wanted inside me. And as soon as I came out, I’m finally able to show people who I really am, and that is such a weight off your shoulders.

 

Shai’s reflections reminded us of another recent video by a Toronto queer organization. Check out Xtra‘s portrait of “andro-babe at masc presenting” Megan, who is super-articulate about the links between her sexual orientation and her clothing choices. Another voice we’d love to hear more of!