Yesterday morning, students at Braden River High protested the stigmatization of female bodies via the public school system. They called it the #Bracott and girls were instructed not to wear bras and to clip their bras to their bags, while boys were told to wear band-aids on top of their nipples, over their shirts. This protest was birthed after a seventeen-year-old student named Lizzy Martinez opted not to wear a bra and faced undue embarrassment at the hands of her peers and Braden River High staff

Schools using dress code policies to disproportionately target young girls is nothing new. Last year, one school in Indiana received national attention for barring girls from displaying their shoulders or wearing leggings without an accompanying top to cover their butts. Another school instructed students to send photos of their outfits to be approved prior to school dances. Social media has created a space for us to dissect these policies and call attention to the blatant sexism that is embedded in what they require.

School dress codes posit that boys will be distracted if their female peers aren’t modestly dressed, shifts blame for this lack of focus onto girls and teaches everyone to perceive female bodies as inherently distracting and problematic. It results in a lack of accountability for boys, and then men, in their consumption of female bodies. It acts as if they cannot help sexualizing or objectifying the opposite sex. And of course, it teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies. It teaches girls that to flaunt or to celebrate their bodies, to reject modesty, invites predation. This is where control over female bodies begins and is normalized. It is a short leap from holding girls accountable for how boys react to their bodies, to claiming that the harm women experience is justified if they aren’t modestly dressed.

Lizzy Martinez' story

When Lizzy Martinez showed up at school without a bra, she had zero intent of creating an uproar. Bras are uncomfortable out the gate, and she was trying to be gentle on a recent sunburn, although women taking charge of our bodies shouldn’t necessitate us being in pain. After one of Lizzy’s classmates laughed at her, a teacher and a fellow student reported her (rather than punishing the student) and she was called to the dean’s office. She was told that her outfit was distracting to boys in her class. School officials had her put on a second shirt and move and jump around to see how much her breasts moved, and when this wasn’t satisfying enough, they instructed her to cover her nipples in band-aids. Lizzy was so embarrassed, she escaped to the bathroom and cried. 

Lizzy’s experience reflects that of a lot of young girls but these policies also target LGBT+ students. They control students identities by policing gender, whether that’s telling trans girls that they aren’t allowed to wear skirts or trans boys that they can’t have long hair. And by creating a dress code that is binarized, schools marginalize gender non-binary students. Plus, school dress code policies only ever accuse boys of “struggling to concentrate”, even though not all boys are even attracted to girls, and girls can be attracted to girls as well. Lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and queer girls are left out of the conversation, and manage to remain focused, suggesting that a boy’s inability to concentrate is more about a socialized entitlement to girls’ bodies. When schools target girls for this entitlement, they humiliate them and actively prevent them from learning.

 
Slut-shaming affects different women differently

Lizzy’s story also reminds me of my own #FreetheNipple journey. I started wearing bras in junior high, after someone called attention to the fact that my nipples were visible through my shirt. I’d had nipples my whole life and they’d never caused a problem, and puberty hadn’t significantly altered my breasts -- I still don’t even fill an A-cup bra. So I didn’t need a bra but at age thirteen, I had my mom buy me them to avoid shame from my peers and educators. 

I internalized that shame and I carried it into high school, where it manifested as a fear of standing out or drawing attention to my body in general. Whenever I was accused of violating the dress code, I was surprised, because my intent was never to make a statement. I dressed exclusively for comfort. And whether my motivation was to be attention-seeking or to be comfortable, I was owed that choice. Meanwhile, boys, who will grow into men in the public sphere (where dress codes do not necessarily exist), have the choice of paying my body attention or not. It is actually more valuable to talk to them about the ways they feel entitled to female sexuality. But slut-shaming shifts the blame, uses humiliation to control women, and makes us feel like we have committed a grave offense when we fail to follow an arbitrary standard. 

Skin color and body type alter the way women's outfit choices are received

I call it arbitrary because so often, my high school allowed girls who were smaller and less curvy to slide while curvier girls were reported and punished. I also consider how racism and colorism informed dress code enforcement -- black and latinx girls were often policed more harshly than white girls, dark-skinned women were targeted more than their light-skinned counterparts. I noticed how the perceived passivity and innocence of East Asian students altered the way their outfit choices were received. And this made it hard to understand what even counted as a breach in the dress code policy, much less realistically observe it, since it applied differently to everyone. Each time, it made me feel small and sad, which I see mirrored in Lizzy’s story when she describes crying in the bathroom.

I am in awe of the students who participated in the #Bracott today. When I was in high school, a national conversation about problematic dress code policies simply did not exist, and none of my peers felt empowered to fight back. It was only two years ago that I released enough sex-negative baggage to officially stop wearing bras, and in addition to being more comfortable and saving money, I feel like I am taking back my body. I am empowered every day. Students everywhere deserve that feeling at seventeen as much as I deserve it now. Body autonomy is not a reward for being an adult.

I hope we continue to publicize problematic dress code policies until there is a national understanding that they cannot persist. And I hope we continue to politicize self-expression and self-celebration until the overall narrative shifts. How someone receives my clothing is not my responsibility or my fault, I know that now, and young people should know that too.

Image Source: Jaime Sánchez