When 17 year old Lizzy Martinez got dressed for school, she could not have known that it would mean being called out of class, and that opting not to wear a bra would end up with her having to put plasters on her nipples.
The reason is irrelevant, but on that day Lizzy chose not to wear a bra because of a bad sunburn she had acquired over the weekend. So she put a loose, dark shirt on. However, two school officials of Braden River High School in Bradenton, Florida called her out of class for ‘violating the school dress code’. NY Times reports ‘The 2017-2018 Code of Student Conduct does not say bras must be worn by female students’.
‘They had me ‘X’ out my nipples [with plasters]’
But the administrators insisted Lizzy put on an undershirt. The dean then told her to “stand up and move around for her.” Not appeased, because her nipples were still showing, they made her wear plasters over her breasts. Lizzy told the NY Times “They had me ‘X’ out my nipples”. While sitting in class, Lizzy began crying because she felt ’embarrassed’ and ‘attacked’. She called her mother from the bathroom.
Lizzy Tweeted about the incident and her Tweet went viral shortly after.
Clearly it hit a nerve.
Most girls have a story just like this one, across schools, across countries. The incident brought to light another stunning example of how school code of conduct perpetuates social issues; from rape culture, to sexism, to racism, to gender binaries, to the shaming and sexualizing of young female bodies.
Not a New Issue
The issue of problematic school code of conduct hits close to home here in South Africa, especially when it comes to institutionalized racism, perfectly demonstrated in our education institutions’ administrative attitudes to African hair. Locally, Pretoria Girls High School experienced a backlash when a photo of Zulaikha Patel, protesting against racism and discriminatory staff ‘rules’ and remarks went viral. The hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh caught fire when girls of colour across the country began to share their stories of hair-shaming and racism displayed by school officials.
Mishka Wazar wrote for the Daily Vox, ” [PHSG] has numerous unnecessary and indirectly racist (not to mention sexist, homophobic and transphobic) rules regarding hair, clothing and religious and cultural ornaments.”
‘The message says: blackness is not beautiful’
These outdated rules show deep roots in respectability politics: a term that encompasses distancing oneself from ‘blackness’- aesthetically and socially- to be accepted as respectable by white society. Afro hair is seen as ‘unhygienic and un-aesthetically pleasing’ and these ideas glorify white beauty, and end up with young black girls feeling ashamed of their own natural beauty. The message says: blackness is not beautiful. And these girls weren’t having it.
“Do my ni**ples offend you?”
On Monday (16/04/2018), shortly after Lizzy’s Tweet went viral, 30 girls in her high school staged a silent protest against the stigmatization of ‘natural bodies’. They plastered Xs onto their backpacks and refused to wear bras. Sami Drouin, 17 wore a t-shirt asking ‘Do my ni**ples offend you?’
The sexualization of young women’s bodies is encouraged when we demean and reprimand them for wearing skirts that are too short, bras that are too bright (that show through their white shirts) and regulate every part of their appearance, from their hair down to their underwear (a very common rule in local schools where female learners are to wear nude or white underwear only) (I’m serious).
‘[It puts the] blame and onus on the female student, and not other male learners or teachers to control themselves’
We’re telling them that they need to take responsibility for sexualized and unwanted male attention they may receive, putting the onus on these young women to be ‘respectable’, ‘lady-like’ and that by doing otherwise they are purposefully trying to attract attention (and then deserve to feel violated and uncomfortable).
Boy, if that isn’t a perfect example of perpetuating rape culture, I don’t know what else is.
Young boys learn in this environment, that it is the women’s responsibility to earn respect, and that if she does not present herself in a certain way then they have the right to disrespect her, and furthermore that it is not their fault.
They’re just being boys, after all.
Appropriate For Who?
Here are 2 stories (although not the only experiences I had) of my own. When I was in high school I wore a v-neck, long sleeve shirt and a scarf on civvies day (a day in SA school where you can dress casually, and not in uniform). The female students were pulled out of class, and lined up in the hallway. We were told that this was to make sure that our outfits were appropriate and not revealing.
One teacher pointed out that my top was too low (I didn’t even have cleavage, I was 15, and the top was nowhere near what would be defined as ‘low cut’ but I digress) and told me to cover my chest with my scarf. When I asked her why she simply said that it was so that I did not distract male learners and teachers.
‘I never heard of the teacher in question receiving any disciplinary action .. and the girls became much more quiet in his class’
At 15 I was shocked, the irony of this statement was not lost on me and I wondered how other young girls were to interpret a statement like that, that essentially put the blame and onus on the female student, and not other male learners or teachers to control themselves. In a learning environment. Filled with underaged girls. What’s even more horrifying, I thought, was that if it came down to a situation where she was sexually harassed or assaulted, I felt that this sort of sentiment would likely reflect in how that would be handled as well.
And yet another time in the same high school I recall 2 girls being called out of class. When I asked them what happened, they told me they were reprimanded for being inappropriate with one of their male teachers. What did they do, you’re wondering? Flirting, apparently. Joking and being ‘overly familiar’. My only thought then was that it takes two to tango. I never heard of the teacher in question receiving any disciplinary action or reprimanding, and the girls became much more quiet in his class.
Safe to say I felt a lot more conscious of my interactions with my male teachers after that.
Patriarchal attitudes that are harmful to young women who are developing an understanding of their bodies, their sexuality and sex in general grow up in these environments and are bombarded and bullied regularly in these subtle, yet nevertheless long-lasting and impactful ways. And that’s not even speaking of institutionalized racism and strict gender-conforming uniform dress codes.
The school code of conduct is no new enemy to the female student, and even more so for female students of colour, as well as students of colour in general, non-binary students and even disabled students. When will their ‘guardians’ -parents, educators and adults of the community- begin to put pressure on the education system to review it? It seems they are done waiting for action and speaking out for themselves now.
If you are being sexually harassed, are being discriminated against or feel uncomfortable at school :
- The Safe Schools Call Centre 0800 45 46 47 : A toll-free hotline, provides immediate, free, online communication to learners, parents and teachers needing help, guidance or information regarding education-related safety issues.
- Report it to a school administrator that you trust
- Tell an adult that you trust
- Report it to SAPS in your area – you can find the correct station for your province here
Share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Words: Zoya Pon
Feature Image: shirt avail to buy from My Sister