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Are School Dress Codes Sexualizing the Teenage Girls They Aim to Protect?

Image: Fox 13 News

Image: Fox 13 News

Utah's Wasatch High School is in the news today, after several female students found their yearbook pictures were Photoshopped to show less skin, namely, clavicles, shoulders and tattoos. These are the actions of a high school in Utah–not a high school in Saudi Arabia.

The students are understandably pissed. Not only were the girls not wearing anything inappropriate or overly-revealing, it's that some students' pictures were Photoshopped for decency (which they were informed was a possibility before taking the pictures), while others were left as is. "I feel like they put names in a hat and pick and choose who," Sophomore Rachel Russel told Fox 13 News. "There were plenty of girls that were wearing thicker tank tops and half of them got edited and half of them didn’t."

And she's right. There are two photos in which girls are wearing a denim vest over a sleeveless blouse. In one image, sleeves were added, and in another, the shoulders were left bare.

Wasatch High School has since released a "sorry-not-sorry"-style statement, in which they apologize not for Photoshopping girls who weren't at all dressed indecently in the first place, but for not being more consistent in their editing: "In the application of these graphic corrections, the high school yearbook staff did make some errors and were not consistent in how they were applied to student photos and the school apologizes for that inconsistency.”

Wasatch High School's dress code clearly states its perception of appropriate dress for women. As an official document on student appearance reads: "Modesty includes covering shoulders, midriff, back, underwear, and cleavage at all times. Extreme clothing, including but not limited to, baggy or 'sagging' clothing; excessively oversized clothing; inappropriately short, tight, or revealing shorts, skirts, dresses, tank shirts, halter or crop tops, spaghetti straps, etc…is prohibited."

Ah, reading those words takes me back to my days as a teenager at Christian camp. We had a similar dress code: spaghetti straps, two-piece swimsuits, midriffs, strapless tops and dresses, shorts with writing on the butt (all the rage in the early aughts)… all were forbidden for girls. However, male campers and counselors were free to frolic shirtless in the woods. The reasoning behind the strict code for women is that Christian girls needed to "help" our brothers in Christ and not tempt them to have impure thoughts by showing too much of our shoulders.

The notion that it's the responsibility of women to make sure men have control over their own thoughts is ridiculous–almost as ridiculous as the idea that by wearing "modest" clothing, men and young boys still won't have naughty fantasies. We've seen these dress code cases come up time and time again, most recently at a Chesterville, VA prom where a girl was thrown out because chaperones claimed her skirt was too short and the fathers overseeing the dance were "ogling" her. Clare, the senior who was removed from her prom says her dress, although it was short, was actually within the school's rules of appropriateness, as the hemline stopped below her fingertips.

Image: Fox 13 News

Image: Fox 13 News

Obviously, school is a place for learning, and with teenagers especially, whose hormones are flying to and fro, you've got to make sure folks aren't showing up to class with their booties hanging outside of their pants or with their boobs spilling out of their tops. But to scrutinize shoulders, clavicles, even a bit of cleavage, which is naturally occurring and variable (some cleavage is more pronounced than others), not only makes girls more self-conscious about their bodies, but also makes them feel as if their bodies are primarily looked upon by the opposite (or same) sex as vessels whose main function is for sexual titillation. I'd argue that this is more damaging to women than any of the phantom boners Wasatch High School administrators think these 15-year-old boys are getting when they see a girl in a spaghetti-strap top.

Why, instead, do we not teach young boys to view bodies as bodies? Of course, bodies can be sexual, but they are also functional and strong. Instead of putting the burden on teenage girls, who already have it hard enough, why not invest time and energy into making sure young boys, I don't know, treat women like human beings instead of potential sexual conquests? Let's instead put pressure on teenage boys to challenge how society views women's bodies. Let's nurture a mindset that allows men to see women as regular people, rather than Jezebels in strapless tops, trying to turn good boys into sex maniacs.