No Straps, No Service: When Censorship Goes Too Far

For many high school students, senior year represents a pinnacle in one's secondary education. The influx of admission letters, job offers and other paperwork signifying the start of a new adventure is accompanied by the exponentially growing desire to escape the rigid halls of high school and soar through the skies of the "real world," which may manifest itself in the form of a college campus, a new workplace or service in the armed forces. Regardless of what follows graduation, there is no denying that the closing months of high school are marked by the strengthening of friendships and a bittersweet goodbye to a phase that will leave a permanent and nostalgic mark on our lives.

And then there's prom, a sequin-studded rite of passage in which high school students, typically juniors and seniors, are given the opportunity to shed the weight induced by calculus textbooks and essay assignments in favor of a glamorous night with their closest friends and classmates. Prom is a time idolized by all forms of media, and is often considered to be the frosting on the pastry that is one's high school career. Prom is supposed to be a halcyon event, a night where males and females alike can embrace their own body and truly dress to fit their individual standards of beauty. Indeed, prom is supposed to represent an ideal balance between formal and free-spirited, orderly and (harmlessly) carefree.

The arbitrary dress code standards implemented by the headmaster of Shelton High School in Shelton, Connecticut--from which I graduated in 2014--regarding this year's prom are anything but balanced. The school, which has received much backlash from students, parents and local media organizations alike, announced this past week that "backless dresses, side cutouts and bared midriffs," among many styles, would and will not be allowed at the school's annual prom on May 16. Headmaster Dr. Smith delivered the "reminder" about the prom dress code on May 8, less than two weeks before an event that many students begin preparing for in February. The decision came as a shock to many female students, who have since started a petition demanding that these unfair dress standards be overturned at a school where the male body has been celebrated at events such as Mr. Student Body, a school-sponsored bachelor pageant in which male students strut on stage in their underwear and perform various talents for a student audience and panel of judging faculty members.

Dr. Smith is by no means a novice when it comes to making arbitrary, unpopular and unproductive school decisions; in 2011, she drew international criticism when she banned James Tate, a senior student at the time, for his "promposal," in which he entered the school grounds one spring night and hung a paper banner asking his female friend to the dance (I thought it was rather charming). The fissure caused by her decision, which as I remember had little logic or substance behind it, reached a dangerous level of saturation and resulted in two very polar outcomes; Tate went on the Today Show, was later allowed to attend the prom and was crowned the Prom King. Smith, on the other hand, was bombarded by sharp-tongued emails, letters, phone calls and messages from citizens all over the world, in turn being forced to sulk back to her office, her lips pursed and decision overturned. In 2014, Smith, after subjecting the school newspaper to two years worth of unjustified censorship and prior review, suddenly and without explicit reason removed the beloved advisor of the school paper, a teacher to whom I owe my place at the University of Michigan and who inspired me in ways that mere words can never express. Students on the newspaper, including me, fought for our teacher to resume her position as the parent to a nationally acclaimed and award-winning publication, but our efforts were met with an iron wall of stubbornness. It has been one year since my teacher was removed, and I can never forgive my headmaster for the lack of transparency associated with this decision.

The recent dress code standards, which administrators claim are highlighted in the school's Student Handbook, are as sexist and vague as they are not conducive. The standards ban fashion that one year ago was accepted with no question, and came at an extremely inconvenient time by forcing some female students to spend hundreds of dollars modifying dresses that they spent hundreds of dollars on to begin with. The handbook, in addition, has little to no specifications about prom attire and simply states that dress must be formal. The policies radiate the idea that the female body is to be objectified and embargoed, whereas the male body is to be celebrated and greeted with applause. Had the dress code been made clear months before and followed closely in past years as well, it would hardly be an issue. But the expectation that female students should cover their skin because "exposure" may present a distraction or "compromise" the well-being of the student body is preposterous and archaic. Perhaps all girls should attend their proms dressed as nuns?

As a male, I cannot help but believe that these standards are yet another way of enforcing the idea that the female body is a "distraction" for male students. Schools around the country have tried to argue for years that the objectification of female students is merely a means of protecting adolescent girls from "male impulsiveness." To that, I can feel nothing but disgust and exasperation. The more we use this idea as an excuse to foster gender-based disparities in our schools, the more we fail to see the words that our actions shout. Double standards are, as history has shown, no way to run a high school.

I have a sister, and I cannot fathom the idea that she may one day have to allow others to dictate how she dresses to please those around her. I cannot fathom the idea that while males have a certain degree of freedom in their physical expression, female students of all ages are constantly sent home for "distractions" ranging from pink hair to nose piercings to strapless prom dresses. For once, I wish to see our society hold male students accountable for their behavior towards their female peers. I wish to live in a town where my sister does not have to fear being sent home from school or an event because her earrings are too shiny or her mascara is too voluminous or anything of that nature.

I am by no means arguing for public nudity, but I am arguing for a system that is equivocal and lenient where leniency is appropriate. I attended prom for both my junior and senior years and never viewed any of my female peers differently for the color or style of their dress. I encourage all students at Shelton High School to (appropriately) challenge the policy and work to alter the way schools dehumanize their students. Censorship has proven to be as potent as gasoline in high schools across the nation, and I can only hope that the Shelton High administration learns to exercise its authority in a productive rather than spotlight-seeking way.