Body Shame In Our Schools

When I was a freshman in high school, I decided to experiment with V-neck t-shirts. Not a revolutionary form of rebellion, but 14-year-olds are not known for originality.

At lunch that day I crossed the open expanse of concrete with a few friends and ran across a member of the administration. She looked pointedly down at my neckline and told me that I had "nice cleavage," and to conceal it so that nobody would see it "too soon." Horrified, I pulled my neckline up to my chin and walked around flushed for the rest of the day.

Creepy and sexist comments from faculty under the guise of adhering to the dress code is a well-documented problem. In Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight, hundreds of girls with skirts that were "too short" were sent home to "prepare them" for what they might experience in the workplace. At a Petaluma high school, as well as in my middle school, girls were banned from wearing skinny jeans because they were deemed "too distracting" to adolescent boys. The problem with this mentality, apart from the blatant sexism, is that it assumes the responsibility for boys' inability to concentrate falls on adolescent girls' shoulders. Girls are deprived of educational opportunities by being sent home from school because their bodies are maturing.

Not all dress codes are immoral or inherently sexist, but they become so when they are not equitably enforced. It is a rare article that documents boys being sent home because their clothing is out of dress code or sexually distracting. This past year I was instructed to cover my shoulders while wearing a baggy pair of overalls during a heat wave. Later that day the same teacher walked past a boy in a tank top that bowed inward to show off his nipples and nodded at him in a friendly manner.

Disturbingly, in my school it was the female members of the staff who most frequently penalized girls for their clothing. Even more upsettingly, these remonstrations were often accompanied with a sting of vengeance. Have women internalized these body-shaming standards so thoroughly that they take it upon themselves to ensure that the next generation of women are as embarrassed about their burgeoning sexuality as they once were?

My school had an added dimension to the restrictions of the dress code. Being a Jewish day school, the faculty pulled all of the girls out of school during lunch one day to discuss how our bared shoulders and cutoffs were violating modesty standards that Judaism demanded. The administration, we were informed, was "ashamed" to allow parents to see the classrooms because of the girls' disreputable fashion choices. But what is so shameful about women's bodies? Why are the brazenly displayed torsos of scrawny male adolescents publicly acceptable, even dismissed as boys being boys, while the shoulders of pubescent girls are a disgrace to Judaism and too tantalizing to permit public viewing?

The answer is that both in religion and society, girls' bodies are seen as sexual objects that exist only for men's pleasure and consumption. This alone is a well-documented societal problem, but it has extended to our schools, disrupted the learning of female students and made them feel uncomfortable in the presence of the faculty. It is time to rethink the dress code.