The following guest post was written by a 17-year-old student at James River High School in Midlothian, Va., who is protesting her school's dress code and unfair enforcement with regard to young women. It reflects her views and not necessarily those of the ACLU of Virginia.
Oct. 14, 2015 Update: The ACLU of Virginia has demanded that the Chesterfield County School Board fix James River High School's unconstitutional dress code policy. Read our letter to the school board.
By Lydia Cleveland
As an American high school student, I am used to being told what to do. I am told where to go, when to eat, and even when to use the restroom. It is in my role, in my caste as a student. I have accepted this role, as it is not permanent.
As an American woman, I am used to being a second class citizen. I am used to being objectified, catcalled and disregarded by a large portion of society, despite how far modern civilization has advanced. I have grown accustomed to being disrespected. I was born into this role, and there is no escaping it.
Until very recently, these two subjugated aspects of my life remained separate.
It is the beginning of my senior year at James River High School in Midlothian, Va. I have noticed the alarming new fervor with which administrators have begun to target female students regarding dress code. They line the hallways every morning, blatantly staring female students up and down, up and down, scouting to make sure their outfits are free of what they refer to as “distractions.”
These include shoulders, most tight clothing, thighs, and even jeans that are “filled out a little too well,” as one administrator put it. God himself would have to help you if have full hips and a full bust, as you likely won’t make it past the parking lot. Some students are even asked to walk in front of staff, male and female, so they can be looked at closely to ensure that such “serious and distracting infractions” are not present.
Whom these administrators are concerned about distracting is never said outright, but can be gleaned by who isn’t ever in trouble for dress code: male students. They regularly saunter past those same hawk-eyed administrators, in backwards caps or with boxer shorts pulled up for the world to see. The occasional young man will be stopped, given a warning, and sent on his way.
Although the dress code (according to the student handbook) is in place to “maintain professionalism,” the frightened looks on the faces of my fellow female students would tell another story. In an office situation, in the “real world,” as my school aims to prepare us for, this might even be considered a hostile work environment. We seem to be alone, blocked in by a school coup d’état against us.
Should a student be found in violation of the school’s staunch code, they are given a choice between having a parent (who hopefully isn’t working) bring a change of clothes, spending the rest of the instructional day in detention, or something far more insidious.
If the student has a working parent, and does not want to spend their valuable school time in a dank detention trailer, they may reenter class only if wearing the school-provided baggy grey sweatsuit with the hand-printed words “DRESS CODE” written boldly across the top and down the leg of the pants.
This is the punishment, from the same dress code that seeks professionalism and minimal distractions. It is the clothing equivalent of putting someone in stockades, all to preserve all-important learning time. While this would be horrendous if both genders were being punished equally, it is far more despicable when only one is.
My beloved school, my soon-to-be alma mater, is shaming young women. There is no getting around it, no sugarcoating it. This shaming goes beyond humiliation, it sends a very loud and clear message to the female students of James River High School: your education is less valuable than that of your male counterparts, your body is sinful and dangerous, you are the reason young men grow corrupted.
My school is promoting rape culture without even realizing it, pushing it on harmless girls as young as 14. This philosophy grows dangerous in a country where one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
I know that I will personally do everything in my power to fight that statistic, but how far can we get as a society if we are constantly reinforcing rape culture? Subjugation begins with something as little as a dress code, and I sincerely hope those in power can develop the foresight to see that.
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