By Sarah Thuswaldner (eQuality Project Student)

There might be no high school complaint more cliché than dress codes. Everyone remembers – or still struggles with – teachers telling them to fix their skirts, cover their shoulders, or even go home to change into something else.

Ottawa Carleton Catholic School Board policy says dress codes can be “as general as addressing the wearing of ball caps and the length of skirts and shorts.”

Keen observers will note that two of those three items only affect women.

At my high school, the girls-only conflicts with the dress code were a matter of course. Typically, tops had to have straps that were three fingers wide. Shorts and skirts were measured by holding one’s arms straight down, and anything that didn’t reach fingertip-length was too short. Aside from the obvious fact that finger and arm size are not standardized, these were not easy requirements to meet.

If anyone thinks it’s a simple matter of buying new clothes, I gladly invite them to try it. Generally, clothing stores don’t sell long shorts or thick-strapped tank tops. They sell what’s fashionable, and for hot weather that means bare shoulders. At a glance, roughly 10% of tank tops sold by American Eagle, the Gap, and Bluenotes would be considered “school-appropriate.”

High school girls, therefore, live in a culture that sells them very specific clothing, and then shames them for wearing it.

My class found workarounds: we tied sweaters around our waists, strategically wore our hair down to conceal our tank top straps, and covered up with cardigans if all else failed. We did not enjoy it. (I also invite any naysayers to spend an hour in an un-air conditioned basement with twenty sweaty classmates in the middle of June, and see how they like wearing a cardigan.)

Like clockwork every summer, students begin to question and protest their dress codes. Last May, Etobicoke School of the Arts was the site of “Crop Top Day.” Female students wore crop tops en masse to defy the rule forbidding them. The principal, while tolerant of this one day of protest, posted on the school site that while students felt “dress codes sexualize[d] students … the school is a professional work-space.” There was no mention of whether changes were made to the policy.

Students also take umbrage with the way dress codes restrict gender expression. In February, students at Buchanan High School in California gender-swapped their wardrobes to highlight the dress codes’ discrimination. Forbidden items include “exotic clothing” and tops with straps of less than two inches’ width, as well as men with long hair or earrings. The school website currently makes no mention of whether the policy will be reviewed.

Project Slut, an initiative started by Toronto students Kerin Bathel-John, Erin Dixon, and Andy Villaneuva, aims to get rid of student dress codes altogether. The campaign seeks to combat slut shaming and sexualized bullying in schools by raising awareness and advocating for students’ right to dress how they like.

The perennial dress code debate shows no signs of slowing down – and every year, it appears to inspire more students into activism for gender equality.