Dress code talk has gotten too close to home

I was out with my 12-year-old yesterday afternoon when I realized I hadn’t talked with her about how a school council conversation about dress code had gone. She attends a small public downtown K-6 school housed in a larger K-8, and the school itself is still quite new (5 years). Before a letter was sent home with her a little over a week ago, the only conversation parents had ever had about clothes was to express a preference for no logos, when possible. The letter my child brought home (and only Grade 6 students at the school were given this letter) listed a much broader range of rules that have never been on our radar before this: No underwear showing, tank top straps must be two fingers wide, shorts must pass the “fingertip” test, and nothing disrespectful, hateful, or connected to drugs/alcohol/smoking. The note took care to avoid gendered language, including a “What Not To Wear” illustration that showed contraband gear for girls and boys.

(I should mention, incidentally, that my 13-year-old attends the larger K-8 school, though I’ve been sadly not as connected to the community as I have been with the smaller school. Before this letter came home, a permission form for Grade 8 graduation was distributed, detailing that “age appropriate” and “modest” clothing choices were expected: “no strapless dresses.”)

Anyway, the 12-year-old said that her Grade 5-6 classmates discussed the note in class, and realized that every single child in the class was breaking the stated dress code in one way or another. I asked what she thought of the code, and her first reaction was, “It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s like the people who came up with these rules have never been shopping before. Don’t they get that it’s really hard to find shorts that are longer than soccer shorts but shorter than capris?” Also, as a child with very narrow shoulders, she finds herself regularly breaking the rule of “no visible underwear,” as even if her sleeveless shirts are acceptable, her bra straps often show. 

When she came home with this letter, I had already been researching dress code policy from school board and provincial levels for a friend whose Grade 4 daughter (yep, grade 4) came home one day a few weeks ago after being told her top and shorts were unacceptable. In my research, I discovered that Ontario’s Ministry of Education states that it is the majority of parents in a given school who decide the dress code, not a given school’s administration. Now, there are more specific policies, like the Toronto District School Board’s, which outline that anything depicting gang affiliation, violence, and oppression are unacceptable, but the TDSB has a section D (“Add any other types of Inappropriate Dress”), which is the part parents decide. 

In theory, parents could choose to leave section D entirely blank. There’s nothing in the TDSB policy that states that a dress code must include anything other than sections A through C. This document also clearly states that students must be surveyed for their opinions and understanding of the function of any proposed dress code before it is passed.

With this understanding of policy in mind, I asked for dress codes to be discussed at the last school council meeting of the year. During this meeting, I learned that the letter my daughter and son were sent home with was distributed to all students in Grades 6-8, but that the younger students were supposed to pay the most attention to the section of the letter that dealt with scooter and bike safety. The dress code “reminder” was specifically because there have been a few Grade 8 “students” who were taking risks with their attire: bandeau bras, side boob, exposed bellies, extra short shorts.

“Students,” eh?

The explanation continued: several male teachers felt there was a risk of liability in suggesting that “students” were dressed inappropriately, particularly those “students” who were far more developed than their peers, and wanted to have clear written limitations on dress code that they could refer to so that they would be safe from harassment claims.

I asked if “students” who were less developed would fly under the radar and wear rule-breaking clothes without being challenged, and the person describing the situation agreed that this would happen. It’s only the “students” who have something to show that shouldn’t be showing it.

Now, I talk and write a lot about gendered expectations of appearance, but I’ve gotta say, I was speechless. I just could not respond. The end result of this part of the discussion was that the bigger school’s parent community had drafted and agreed to the current rules, the smaller school currently had no formal dress code, and we should take a closer look in the new year at what we’d like our K-6 code to include.

While I couldn’t figure out where to even start with what I was hearing in the moment, it was important for me to touch base with my daughter. So, yesterday. I told her what had happened and what had been said. Her reaction was what I would expect from a student her age:

“Girls. Are wearing clothes. That male teachers can’t cope with. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Is that how you understand what I’ve said?”

“Yeah. And that’s really stupid. Girls have to change the way they’re dressed because adult men can’t cope? That’s sexist.”

We’re not going to be part of the school community when September comes, so my child’s opinion won’t be heard by the parent community, but I’m so glad that she recognizes that this particular set of rules and the reasons for them are so unbelievably messed up and damaging. She recognizes that this isn’t because her body is dangerous, but that it’s adult perceptions of her that are the danger. She also already understands something that took me years to figure out: her clothing, her body, and her appearance are not responsible for potential acts of harassment and violence against her.



  1. June 10, 2014 at 10:18 am

    i am officially quitting dress code rules. that’s it. i am done. my girl is so much more than the sum of her brightly coloured bra straps.

  2. June 10, 2014 at 10:48 am

    I agree the “distracting to boys or men” theme a sends horrible messages .These articles and there have been several they go like this.- I sent my kid to school wearing the normal sort of clothes and she got humiliated for violating the dress code, which never happens to boys, why are we judging only girls? The question they never ask is – what about our culture makes “normal” clothes for girls expose way more skin than “normal” clothes for boys? While girls are not to be held responsible for how people might react to their regular clothing, what happens to boys who are constantly surrounded by female bodies that are sexualized and objectified- and yes some “normal” teen clothing does that. It is important to smash the idea that what you wear entitles someone to hurt you, harass you or be sexually inappropriate. But I do think the sexuality is a real and powerful thing and we should not pretend that this is not part of the discourse. A child’s body is not dangerous but the adolescent experimentation with sexuality sometimes can be- in the sense that they may unleash emotions or reactions that are not what they intended or expected. A male teacher should behave appropriately to all students. But students should know when they are wearing clothing that is designed to be sexual and know that the teacher may see them as sexual in that clothing even if his behaviour never suggest anything.

  3. Dr. Sphincter said,

    June 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Stop whining. Be glad they don’t wear school uniforms like most other countries… Even in public school…

  4. Claire said,

    June 10, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    My daughter was told that her shorts were too short, forget that she is just barely 7 1/2 yro and 52 inches, and 50 pounds. If her shorts fit in the waist, they are generally about 1-2 inches ‘too short’ :/ Normally it is over looked, but they tied dyed shirts for a school trip and the shirt was 2 sizes too big. SO, she gets in trouble for wearing a shirt that they made her wear, which happened to cover her shorts :/ I will say this, I have seen at least one 3-4 grade boy sent to the office for a belt. ‘I’ was actually scolded for wearing a shirt that was slightly low cut :/ and it was suggested that I go change 😦 And it was not suggestive in any way…if a flat chested woman was wearing it, it wouldn’t have been an issue 😦 Either way…I had already bought fabric and intended to make her shorts for the next few years…cause shopping is too much of a pain anymore

  5. dcmontreal said,

    June 11, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Recently a Montreal suburban high school sent a senior girl home because when standing with hands. Y her side her fingers exceeded the hem of her shorts thereby making them too short. The fact that a posse of administrators patrols the school seems creepy in it self. I suggest that her shorts were fine, her arms were just too long!

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