Should a school replicate the world outside its walls? Should it prepare students for the way things are?
Or could a school try to do things differently? Could a school be a space for trying out new ways of life? Could a school foster social change?
These are some of the questions that animate the work of the End Dress Codes collective. They are also at the heart of the debate over the school resource officer program — the debate over the presence of cops in Toronto schools.
We are absolutely thrilled, and beyond impressed, that this decade-long debate has been decisively won by Black Lives Matter, LAEN (Latinx, Afro-Latin America, Abya Yala Education Network), Education Not Incarceration, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, Educators for Peace and Justice, and, especially, TDSB students — who organized with the aforementioned groups, responded to Board surveys, participated in community consultations, and presented delegations at sometimes hostile police board meetings.
These groups fought to win, and they won; we want to congratulate them, and we want to follow their example. We want schools that resist the injustice outside their walls: like anti-black racism, like the school to prison pipeline, like the prison-industrial complex. We want schools that try to do things differently — and we’re so grateful for the reminder that we will win.
Last year Torontoist posted a story about sideburns in Toronto in the 1960s. Men about town like historian Pierre Berton, boxer George Chuvalo, and Liberal MP Paul Hellyer wore them; the National Ballet of Canada kicked out a dancer because of them; coach Punch Imlach demanded that his Maple Leafs players get rid of them. (Shades of Lou Lamoriello, am I right?! Ahem. Okay, no more sports.)
And then there’s this:
During the same September that Punch Imlach ordered shaves and haircuts for his team, another hair-related controversy emerged at a Toronto high school. Wilbert Bush, the principal at Castle Frank High School (now the Rosedale Heights School of the Arts) sent 16-year-old Douglas Hamburgh home due to the length of his hair. All three major Toronto papers ran the story, complete with photos of Hamburgh, with his hair still short of his eyebrows and barely past his ears.
The initial explanation offered was that Castle Frank High School was a technical school, where students regularly used machinery, and that long hair represented a safety hazard. However, the Telegram reported that Hamburgh had already completed two years at Castle Frank with this hairstyle, and that as an arts student, he never came in contact with the technical-course machinery. A Star editorial pointed out that female students with long hair were permitted to work the machinery at the school provided that their hair was pulled back. “This looks like a clear case of petty tyranny of the sort that alienates young people from school. So long as they don’t disrupt class work or endanger themselves, students should be allowed to wear their hair any way they please.”
Over the next week, protests were organized at Castle Frank High School, dividing the student body. Over 70 students staged a protest, in which they wore jeans and slacks — also forbidden at Castle Frank — demanding the right to dress and wear their hair as they wished. In a Star article with the headline “Students in jeans threaten existence of school: Principal,” Wilfred Bush defended his decision on the basis that, as a technical school, Castle Frank had a duty to prepare its graduates for employment, and that having long hair threatened job prospects. “We go after manners and appearance,” Bush said. “If we lose the battle of hair and clothes, employers would ignore us and not hire our graduates.”
So much of this story sounds familiar! The haphazard imposition of dress code discipline; the illogical rationale provided to justify it; the student resistance; the unconvincing appeal to the job prospects of students. (Ironically, much of the rest of the Torontoist piece is devoted to hair controversies at work — at CFTO-TV, the Canadian National Railway, the Edmonton Transit System, and Dominion grocery store, for example. These employers discovered they’d hired high school graduates who had not entirely given up “the battle of hair and clothes.”)
What is slightly less familiar is the clarity with which the Star editorial diagnoses the situation. It bears requoting:
This looks like a clear case of petty tyranny of the sort that alienates young people from school. So long as they don’t disrupt class work or endanger themselves, students should be allowed to wear their hair any way they please.
Given that the source of dress code discipline — “petty tyranny” — and the effect of it — alienation from school — were so obvious in 1968, it’s hard not to wonder why we are still dealing with such controversies today.
One reason does come to mind, however. Today, the subjects of dress code controversies do not look like Douglas Hamburgh; today, the targets of dress code discipline are mostly students of colour and female-presenting students. Perhaps our culture is less inclined to defend them from tyranny.
The TDSB’s Enhancing Equity Task Force was initiated more than a year ago. Facilitated by Liz Rykert, its mandate is to explore which of the Board’s equity strategies have worked and to identify where challenges remain. The Task Force released its draft report on October 24. Interested parties are invited to comment on this draft by November 20.
The End Dress Codes collective met with Liz Rykert in mid-October, after the draft report had been written. We told her about the destructive impact that school dress codes have on the Board’s equity goals, and about our hope that dress codes will be explicitly discussed in the final version of the report. Now, we want you to comment on the draft report and reinforce our message.
Another is divisions between schools: “Wherever there were divisions between schools, traditionally marginalized students” lost out. Tell the TDSB about the divisions between schools’ dress codes, and how the harshest codes seem to be reserved for traditionally marginalized students.
Sadie Dupuis is Sad13. In Dupuis’ words, Sad13’s debut, Slugger, is an album of “Songs that put affirmative consent at the heart of the subject matter and emphasize friendship among women and try to deescalate the toxic jealousy and ownership that are often centered in romantic pop songs.” In Lindy West’s words, these are “Songs for women that actually champion women’s autonomy, reflect women’s desires, listen to women when they talk, and let women be funny and normal and cool.” In our words, ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥.
Dress code enforcement easily reproduces exactly the types of behaviors that adults are seeking to prevent. They involve a pattern of silence, shame and obedience in situations where someone bigger and more powerful tells a girl what to do with her body. These are lessons in the dynamics of power, control and silence in abusive situations. They are also lessons in male sexual entitlement. That bigger and more powerful person might be an athlete, an employer, a trusted coach or religious leader, people who know they are more likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt.
It is about women; particularly women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and various genders. We need to speak up and understand that vulnerable women have challenges in school, in the workplace, and in society as a whole. So I braided my hair and wrote the speech before returning to Ottawa from Whitby. This is an important conversation to have, and I am glad that the message has been shared throughout Canada and around the world.
The TDSB’s Young Women on the Move (YWM) initiative marked this week’s International Day of the Girl with an event designed to “remind girls that they are capable and should feel competent to enter any profession.”
YWM “empowers girls to be agents of positive change,” in part by proactively involving young women “in social justice activities.” The End Dress Codes collective exists because of young women who, on their own initiative, began social justice activities at their schools. We are profoundly grateful to them, and to everyone who endures despite the many, many barriers in the way. Take some time to take care of yourselves this weekend — and if that means dancing to Beyoncé, well, here’s her International Day of the Girl video!
No one is better at recognizing and calling out the double standards that dress codes so often enforce than the students they are enforced upon. When Eleanor Fitzwilliams tweeted about the hypocrisy at her school, she found plenty of recognition and support.
What started out as a simple tweet has evolved into something greater, she says. Fitzwilliams says the amount of replies she’s received is truly significant. “This has turned out to be more than just my picture not making my yearbook, but more about the sexualization of young people’s bodies across the country.”
A few weeks ago, Lido Pimienta won the 2017 Polaris Prize. Her first post-Polaris performance took place at last weekend’s Venus Fest, a music festival “in the spirit of feminism.”
During her Venus Fest performance, Pimienta told the story that she tells in the middle of the “La Capacidad” video: a story about having her clothing choices policed in the context of an abusive relationship.
Check out the lyrics to “La Capacidad,” with English translation, here.