When Michele Obama’s arms were exposed at the Oscar ceremony over a year ago, an Iranian news agency changed her photograph by adding sleeves and raising the neckline as shown below.
Obama fared better than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another woman who were removed from the iconic photographs of leaders watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung said they had taken the women out of the photograph for religious purposes, citing “laws of modesty.”
Now a Utah high school in Heber, about 50 miles outside Salt Lake City, has joined the photoshopping business. Several teenage girls were surprised and upset when they opened their yearbooks and found the same thing that happened to Michele Obama in the Iranian news. The district ordered sleeves added and necklines raised, despite the fact that all the clothing in the original photos met the school’s dress code.
Wasatch High School Sophomore Kimberly Montoya said, “My shirt was a cream color, and the color of the cover-up was completely white. It looked like white-out on my skin.”
For some unknown reason, girls who wore similar clothing for their yearbook photos had no alterations to their pictures. As sophomore Rachel Russel said, “There were plenty of girls that were wearing thicker tank tops and half of them got edited and half of them didn’t.” Some girls had sleeves added to their shirts; others’ tank tops were untouched. Two girls wore identical vests, but one photo added a shoulder-covering undershirt while the other showed bare arms.
Some of the editing appeared amateurish: a photo editor removed part of a girl’s hair while altering her shirt and then created a “bushy pouf” at chest level.
Another sophomore, Shelby Baum, said she felt as if the school was “trying to shame you of your body.” Her original photo showed a school-approved tattoo on her collarbone that reads, “I am enough the way I am.” Baum said that the tattoo was to remind her of her journey out of difficult times during her childhood.
“My tattoo was a huge thing in my life,” Baum said, choking back tears. “I’ve come a long ways. My tattoo means a lot. It reminds me I am enough. For them to cover that up? They should inform me first. They never said anything to me.”
Montoya said that the retouched photos reflect a school culture that uses administrative comments about girls’ dress to “humiliate” girls. She said she was accused of wearing an immodest skirt although another girl wore the same skirt without reprimand. Montoya was required to changed into sweatpants with the words, “I support Wasatch High dress code.” She said that classmates stared at her as if she had done something wrong. “Every time I walk into that school, I feel judged.”
The yearbook is a done deal—no changes. The book meant to give memories of high school experiences will always give the girls a sense of shame.
The Utah high school is not unique in shaming girls. At Chicago’s Decatur Classical School end-of-year awards ceremony last year, Principal Susan J. Kukielka asked seven girls to stand and announced “an award of distinction” for seven girls. Then she said, “These are not girls of distinction because their shorts are too short.” She finished by telling them that if this had happened at high school, they might have to wear “sweatpants of shame.” Kukielka apologized after angry parents went so far as to demand her resignation.
Two years ago, students protested a dress code at New York’s Stuyvesant High School with “Slutty Wednesday” when they violated the code that included a ban on bare shoulders. Senior Madeline Rivera said that the dress code enforcement singled out “more curvy” students and those with certain “body shapes.” Lucinda Ventimiglia said that she was told her skirts were “technically acceptable” but still too short. “Once it was suggested that I should follow a separate dress code, wherein my skirts should end at least four inches past my fingertips, and preferably at my knees.” She was also told that “if I was raped nobody would be able to take that away from me.”
As Jessica Valenti wrote, “The thinking behind the code sends a dangerous message to young women–that they are responsible for the way in which society objectifies and sexualizes them…. The real “distraction” [at Stuyvesant] isn’t skirts—it’s is the shaming and shameful way this high school is treating women.
Last year Kenilworth Junior High School (Petaluma, CA) banned pants that were “too tight” because the it distracts the boys.
Even home-schooled girls aren’t safe from the dress code shame. At a prom for homeschooled students in Richmond (VA) 17-year-old Clare was told to leave because her dancing was causing the fathers to have “impure thoughts.” She hadn’t been dancing. Her dress fit the necessary standards: it reached her fingertips which made it long enough. Asked to leave, Clare pinpointed the problem: “I’m not responsible for some perverted 45-year-old dad lusting after me.”
Through these actions, adult send the message that women are responsible for controlling male behavior. Females are to blame for males being distracted. Administrators take this approach instead of making schools a safe environment where students are taught to respect each other regardless of what they wear. They encourage a rape culture where females are blamed for male actions. Thus children learn a rape culture at an early age. Don’t be surprised when males take advantage of a culture in which they believe they are not responsible for their actions.