'We Are 17 Years Old, Stop Sexualizing Our Bodies'

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In response to her school dress code, an anonymous female student posted a sign on campus about sexism. (Photo: Imgur)

The weather is getting warmer, which means shorter days and often shorter hemlines — a controversial concept at many schools, especially those with dress codes. One female student has written a powerful reminder, in the form of a sign, to those who object to girls exposing their bare legs in shorts.

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A photo of her note was uploaded to Imgur and Reddit this week. It reads, “As the summer months approach please remember…girls wear shorts in order to stay cool when hot. Not for you. We are 17-years old, stop sexualizing our bodies. If my shorts make you uncomfortable, YOU are the problem.”

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The photo was captioned: “I go to a prep school where dress code is enforced, today this was found around campus.” It has received more than 9,000 views since it was posted three days ago.  

The gesture was the latest example of teenage girls protesting their school dress codes with a silent but powerful method: Signs. In June, a 15-year-old girl in Quebec, Canada named Lindsey Stocker refused to change out of her short denim shorts, per the school dress code, by taping signs around campus that read, “Don’t humiliate her because she’s wearing shorts. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.” In January 2014, a 16-year-old girl in Florida named Marion Mayer posted photos of herself to Tumblr wearing a bikini top and holding a sign that read “It’s Alright. You’re a Boy,” after her principal explained the school dress code (as it pertained to girls) by saying, “Modest is hottest” and “Boys will be boys.” And in March 2014, after an Illinois school banned leggings, tween girls responded by holding up signs that read, “Are my pants lowering your test scores?

Dress codes are a hotly-debated topic stemming back decades. For example, in the 1990s, schools began imposing dress codes more frequently in an effort to stop gang violence so students were restricted from wearing certain colors or pant styles. Other restrictions included clothing deemed “distracting” and that disrupted the learning environment. However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), dress codes (which are determined by each school) can violate students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression and a parents’ 14th amendment right to raise children under their own rules.

They can also skirt another controversial topic: sexism. Dress codes that prohibit students from wearing certain hair styles, makeup, and hemlines have also been viewed as anti-female since women’s fashion usually lends itself to more variations on style. That can also include body types — one notable example includes a Pennsylvania high school student named Alexus Miller-Wigfall who in April was suspended (the decision was later reversed) for wearing a full-length, long-sleeve red prom dress deemed too “revealing.” According to Miller-Wigfall, an assistant principal explained the decision by saying, “You have more boobs than other girls. The other girls have less to show.” And toddlers aren’t exempted from dress codes — a 5-year-old in Texas who wore a dress with spaghetti straps was made to cover her shoulders because her school’s dress code prohibits students from showing “cleavage.”

Another reason dress codes can seemingly target girls: “Dress codes that are gender-based and create different rules for boys and girls violate equal protection under the Constitution and Title 9 which requires equity between the sexes in education,” Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney at the ACLU in Michigan, tells Yahoo Parenting. “This can also have an effect on LGBT students.”

Other issues include vague language (who determines the definition of “revealing?”) and a lack of effort to address or discipline those who are offended by, say, visible bra straps.

In a digital world where videos, status updates, hashtags, memes, and emojis are often used to spread awareness, signs may be the most understated but effective way to protest. Once those signs hit social media (and are combined with selfies and online trends), the impact can be greater. 

“There’s evidence that particular signs — as well as other visual symbols — diffuse across locations, regions, countries and movements,” Susan Olzak, a sociology professor at Stanford University, told NPR. “People believe they’re useful, and they probably are.”

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