When the School Does the Shaming

ImageI don’t often post personal stories on this blog. I prefer to talk about ideas than to talk about myself. There was a story today, however, that brought an event from my past back into view.  According to Raw Story, a public school in Utah has photoshopped yearbook pictures of female students so they will be dressed more modestly. “There have been no reports of male students having their photos altered,” the article said. The action was in keeping with the school’s dress code, a school official said, “In that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things.”

How to dress appropriately for things…

There are not many days in my 45 years of life when I can recall exactly what I was wearing. There was the day I graduated from High School in a gold cap and gown, there was the poofy, shiny blue dress I wore to prom, and the sleeveless, floor-length gown I wore to my brother’s wedding, and then there was the outfit I was wearing in January 1991 when a school administrator called me to the office in the middle of a video editing class.

I was wearing a white turtleneck paired with a black skirt of a floaty layered material.  (I’ve never been much of a fashionista so excuse me that I do not have a better description of the fabric.) I wore nylons and a pair of black flats. My hair was styled, and held on top with a barrette with gold-colored baubles. I didn’t think of the outfit as particularly sexy or provocative. I was not on my way to seduce anyone or attract special attention. The pieces and accessories came from the clothing store where I worked part-time as a sales associate. I was heading there straight from school and my job required me to dress in the merchandise. I thought I was wearing something generally flattering, youthful and up-to-date but serious and respectable. That is how thought I was presenting myself, how I wanted to be seen by the world.

I should also point out that I was not in high school. I was a 22 year-old college graduate. After earning my B.A. in theater, and finding that the major theater corporations were not lining up to offer me jobs with great dental plans, I had decided to get some additional technical training in order to pursue a career in radio. It was a six-month course, if I remember correctly (there are so many details I remember much less clearly than what I was wearing that day). Most of the students entered the program straight from high school. The school catered more to these students than to adult students with college degrees. It took a stance similar to a high school– it felt it had to offer a certain amount of remedial education in behavior and how to present oneself professionally.  They had a dress code, and they explained in orientation, in a joking way, that if students came to class in something that was not up to code they would be “sweatsuited.” That is, they would be given a sweatsuit with the school logo on it to wear for the rest of the day.

I didn’t think anything of this. I was a shy kid. The sort who does not get much notice socially. I had graduated from my high school with commendation. I earned advance placement scores that allowed me to graduate from college early. My senior year of college I had worked five different part time jobs around my class schedule in order to pay for a post-college trip to the UK. (I traveled there on a student work visa.)  I had never been given any cause to think of myself as anything but respectable.

Not until that day.

I had no idea why the administrator was pulling me out of class. When I got to the office, she had a sweatsuit waiting for me. She told me that she had seen me on the video monitor (we were doing some news reading or something for the video class) and that my skirt was too short, not up to code, and I would have to wear the sweat pants or leave the building.

I felt my face go red and the tears welling up in my eyes. I did my best to fight them back. I became aware of my body, my physical presence, in a way I never had before. I was being judged sexually, and I had never intended to invite the administrator to look at me that way.  I felt humiliated, diminished and infantilized. She was telling me that I did not know how to dress myself, and that I was presenting myself as a slut. The way I was dressed was shaming the school.

I refused to go back to my classroom and face the stares and laughter of my peers in the scarlet letter of those sweat pants. I chose, instead, to give up my perfect attendance record and leave the building– to take my shameful self far from view.

I don’t know if the girl who found her yearbook image censored felt any of that; if the girl who donned her favorite tank top to look nice in her picture felt a twinge when she realized someone had viewed her as an object of lust and implied that she had intended to present herself that way all along.

The events I just recounted must have been no more than 10 minutes of my life. I am sure the administrator who was defending the dress code has no memory of it at all. I can’t say that this event changed my life’s trajectory. I finished the course, went on to work in radio (usually wearing jeans), and then to publish 15 books, tour the country with an international artist and to write for corporate CEOs and foreign heads of state. I have no reason to think of myself as anything but respectable. And yet, 23 years later, when I remember that moment, I can still feel the shame.

 

 

 

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