Canadian High Schoolers Won’t Take Dress Codes for An Answer

shutterstock_200598194“Two, four, six, eight! Give us a policy before it’s too late!”

What started as a student protest to change the dress code at a Canadian high school turned into a much-needed discussion of sexual harassment—and has led to the drafting of a new district-wide policy that covers both issues.

The chant was a rallying cry at the protest, organized by members of Fredericton Youth Feminists last November at Fredericton High School in New Brunswick, which garnered media attention after 25 protesters were slammed with three-day suspensions from school and suspension from extracurricular activities for the remainder of the school year. When the students voiced their grievances in a documentary by the CBC’s Jaques Poitras, they spoke about how gender politics of school dress codes contribute to sexual harassment and rape culture.

Fredericton’s dress code policy ambiguously requires students to dress in “modest” clothes—phrasing that even David McTimoney, the superintendent of the Anglophone West School District which governs Fredericton High, admitted can be problematic. Many young women students felt that the language in this policy granted individual teachers leeway to interpret the rules to different extents, resulting in a disproportionate singling out of those wearing “sheer shirts” or “visible bra straps.” The young women attributed these guidelines to the omnipresent culture of seeing women’s bodies as objects designed for the male gaze. Revealing “too much” skin is thus considered “dangerous” for women simply because it may be distracting to males.

This sort of dress-code philosophy is ingrained in many schools across the world. Any exposure of a young women’s thighs, midriffs, chests and even shoulders are considered “unprofessional” when they’re not driving boys away from their studies. The protesters at Fredericton High questioned the fairness of these rules, asking, Why are bra straps unprofessional? Short skirts are distracting to whom?

Further, they felt that the dress-code restrictions perpetuated victim-blaming, and that it was of more importance to discuss the school’s  lack of a sexual harassment policy. When Fredericton’s vice principal told senior Sorcha Beirne that her shirt was too revealing, Beirne attempted to discuss such concerns with the school’s principal, Shane Thomas, but he “had no interest in listening to me.”

Although the dress code conversation sparked a dialogue between students and administrators about a culture that subtly condones sexual harassment and rape, the school refused to budge with regard to its “modest” policy. However, the administration at Fredericton has finally begun the process of revising its perspective. McTimoney told CBC News in mid-February that although the dress code policy will remain the same, school administrators will partner with students to draft a sexual harassment and sexual assault policy.

Principal Thomas finally sat down with students and learned firsthand of instances in which they’d been harassed. One student recounted that, after complaining to administrators about being repeatedly hollered at in the hallway by male students, she was met with the comment, “You shouldn’t have been wearing that shirt.” Fredericton senior, Emilia Deil, remembers a breakthrough during these interactions:

Him just even listening to us and encouraging us and telling us that he wanted to work with us and work through this, and understand—you could tell he genuinely cared at that point and genuinely wanted to do something about the issue, rather than just dismiss it.

Although policies have not yet been officially altered, Thomas has expressed a deeper understanding of why the young women felt targeted and unsafe:

It certainly is a learning curve for those of us on the other side of the table. Because you don’t know what all of the students are going through.

The school administration has already partnered with the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Center to organize a sexual assault response team at the high school. There are also tentative plans to establish a chapter of the White Ribbon campaign, which encourages men to raise awareness about violence against women. The conversation about drafting a finalized sexual harassment policy continues within Fredericton High still continues.

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Photo via Shutterstock




Emily Mae Czachor is a print & digital journalism student at the University of Southern California and the senior culture editor of Neon Tommy. She is currently an editorial intern at Ms.


  1. SarahInTX says:

    I see both sides of this issue. On one hand, girls in school should not be treated as potential distractions for male students, and they should not be singled out regarding attire. However, how often do we see boys in short shorts or tank tops or short shirts in schools? We don’t. I don’t dress like that to work, and I agree that it’s unprofessional. There’s nothing wrong with having standards of dress. If I ran a company and were in charge of hiring, I absolutely wouldn’t hire anyone – man or woman – who I didn’t feel could dress in a professional manner while representing my business. Sexism is one thing. A dress code can be something different.

    • Jessica says:

      Boys wear tank tops/wife beaters to school during the summer. Further, regardless of weather, a lot of boys wear their trousers at their hips, revealing the waistband (or more) of their underwear. The only thing I have not seen boys wear to school are shorts above the knee.

      If there is a dress code, it has to be fair. If girls can’t wear tight pants, boys should not either. If girls cannot wear sleeveless tops, boys should not either. Everyone can be asked to wear shirts instead of t-shirts.

      I agree that there is nothing wrong with a dress code that promotes professional attire, but then it should be gender neutral.

      • I agree with Jessica.
        Whatever the dress code policy should be, it should be equal for both sexes.
        And I agree with SarahInTx, there is nothing wrong with a (minimum) dress code policy.

        • Also, GREAT JOB to these girls for standing up against sexual harassment, getting administrators to listen, and successfully advocating for creation of a dress code policy.

          These are the kind of strong feminist women we need entering the workplace.

          Thank you to the author and Ms. for covering this.

    • Christine says:

      I come from New Brunswick, somewhere close to to what happened at this high school, so I can relay accurate information, which I hope you will at least consider to be some what of true intent… They do not wish to diminish the dress code policy. This is not their argument. Although “bra straps” or “short skirts” are a things that CAN be take to an unproffesional, and sometimes uncomfortable point, this is not what these high schoolers were arguing. What they were trying to argue was that the teachers, male and female alike, were telling them they needed to have more respect for themselves, they needed to cover up because they were distracting the boys, etc. Basically, they were fighting agasint the way that the people in charge at school are sexualized them, and saying that their bodies are more important of an issue than their studies. They decided to take a “My shorts aren’t distracting boys from their studies, my teachers are distracting me from my studies” mentality when dealing with this situation, finding the root cause of why everyone is unhappy. The teachers hold a different set of modesty beleifs and that should not stop them from pursuing education. I have seen countless women from my own school been sent home to change; if they could not go home, they were asked to call a parent. There are other solutions to this problem. If a woman has not followed the policy, worn something that DISTINCTLY shows her bosom or bottom, perhaps they should have a stash of clothing for them to change into? Instead of sending them home? There have been violent shows of disgust from teachers to students, not just showing discontentment from breaking the rules. This is the essence of what they were fighting for. And while men don’t wear shorts that are usually above the knee, they do tend to wear ‘wife beater’ tank tops, something that is not allowed according to (our) policy. Other clothing such as hats and low falling pants (almost off their bottoms!) have been only pushed to stop, if not tolerated. The teachers were their area of attack, not the policy itself really.

  2. Nathalie says:

    I think that we need to rethink our idea of what “professional” means. If we’re in a hospital, there are safety issues to consider and so sterile white coats are appropriate. If we’re in a heavy metal band, spikes and tattoos are professional. If we’re firefighters, protection gear is professional. And so how is it that “professional” for high school is loosely based on what an accountant in the 50s might wear?! Or in some cases, what a nun might wear?! I think the focus should be on what is going to allow the students to be in an environment of confidence and creativity. And really, the focus should be on learning and not appearance. So, that director who has nothing better than to look at the legs of his senior students might find that his time is better spent looking into her eyes and having a conversation about philosophy or history…

  3. Boys at my high school routinely wore shirts with the entire sides cut open. They would cut their shirts starting underneath the arm all the way down so that the shirts kind of looked like ponchos. This showed off their entire chest and abdomen. No boy ever got in trouble for effectively being shirtless, but I got sent to the office because my shirt was a bit too small and showed about an inch of skin above the pant-line when I reached upwards. I was specifically told that I was leading the boys on and forced to change outfits.

  4. I don’t think boys should be allowed to wear pants that show their underwear or baggy basketball shorts, either, but that rarely gets pointed out (I actually saw a kids’ balls when I was in high school because he was sitting on the bleachers with baggy b-ball shorts – not an experience I EVER want to repeat).

    We should just implement school uniforms. Problem solved.

  5. Jessica Too says:

    I don’t particularly care about distracting the boys – I’d like the girls to be respectful. Respectful to themselves. Less of a rush to grow up and follow Hollywood’s sex-as-a-commodity mandate.

    That said, any dress code should be gender neutral. Treat both girls and boys the same – ie, “no skin or underclothing showing between thigh and shoulders.” I no more wanna see a boy’s boxers than a girl’s thong, personally, but this way it doesn’t single out either gender for special negative attention.

  6. Saying that boys are easily distracted just for seing a little too much of another human skin (from the opposite sex) is insulting for men: it is saying that men are irrational animals unable to control themselves. They are humans, and a way to stop sex harasment is teaching them to behave like humans.

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