There’s a startling increase in depression among teens in the U.S.
But there isn’t a corresponding increase in mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults.
A Florida high school has attracted national attention for altering 80 students’ yearbook photos to add more clothing to their chests and shoulders, obscuring cleavage and sometimes even clavicle bones. All the students were female, none consented to having their images digitally altered, and many of them said they felt humiliated by the incident.
The drama at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County, Fla., embodies an ever-present double bind for women and girls who are told in myriad ways that in order to be feminine, desirable and culturally valued they must be sexy – they see it in the most-liked images on social media, in clothing ads and in the portrayal of their gender in movies and on TV. Yet when young girls, especially, attempt to live up to that expectation, to reveal their bodies even modestly, they are frequently scrutinized and punished.
“There’s just so much ambivalence,” said Abigail Saguy, a sociologist at UCLA who studies gender dynamics. “On the one hand you’re giving the message to pretty young girls that women need to be sexualized to have value in this world and then on the other hand we’re punishing them for participating in this. You can’t win.”
Experts say the school’s editing of strictly female bodies reflects society’s disproportionate focus on girls’ appearances, also evident in the school’s dress code, which is more detailed and restrictive for the school’s female students. But it also shows how the school views the girls’ bodies as symbols of the institution itself, and reveals their calculation that modesty equates to morality. The problem, experts say, is that the school’s manipulation of these photos doesn’t show girls how to respect their bodies or how to be “good.” It instructs them to be ashamed.
“This is the school teaching them, along with everything else that they’re learning in school, a whole curriculum on body shame,” Saguy said.
More on dress codes: California school’s no-shame dress code empowers students to wear what they want
A dress code of double standards
Last month, before the school’s yearbook editing fiasco, it came under fire for its dress code, which disproportionally targets female students. The boys’ dress code has three bullet points. Male students are instructed to ensure “mustaches and beards shall be neatly trimmed,” that “revealing clothing” is unacceptable, and that pants “must be worn at the waist” with no underwear visible.
The girls’ section also has three bullets, but is packed with more detailed directives. Girls are told the appropriate length of their skirts, are forbidden to show any parts of their stomachs, can’t use hair curlers, can’t wear “excessive makeup” and must adhere to the mandate that “tops and shirts must cover the entire shoulder and they must be modest and not revealing or distracting,” among other rules.
As its designed, Bartram’s dress code heavily polices the bodies of female students. And in including the word “distracting” in the girls list and not the boys, perpetuates the notion that women’s bodies tempt men and must therefore be inconspicuous. It fuels the dangerous myth that boys cannot control their sexual desires, which is often used to absolve boys and men when they commit sexual violence.
School dress codes that target female students have received increased attention in recent years, with experts arguing that their hyper-focus on girls is unfair and discriminatory. Kate Mason, a gender studies professor at Wheaton College, said school dress codes on their own can be useful, but they become harmful when they target one group over another.
“I’m not saying that schools don’t have a role in teaching kids what is appropriate. I remember when I was in high school they said we couldn’t have T-shirts with profanity on it. That was probably a good lesson to learn,” she said. “It’s not that schools don’t have a right to have a dress code, but you see these pretty pronounced disparities in the extent to which boys versus girls bodies are policed.”
Mason also notes that dress codes can be especially punitive to girls of color, whose bodies are more heavily scrutinized than white girls. A 2017 study from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found adults view Black girls as less innocent than their white peers, especially between the ages of 5 and 14. Adults also believe Black girls know more about sex.
Scrutiny dangerous and painful during adolescence
Scrutiny typically begins in adolescence, when girls’ bodies begin to change and mature. We see it in the tropes on TV – a father rushing to cover up a teenage daughter in a bathing suit – or in the moralizing around what clothes are appropriate for young women to wear.
“I think it sends the message that our girls should be ashamed of their growing bodies, and I think that’s a horrible message to send out to these young girls that are going through these changes,” said Adrian Bartlett, the mother of one of the female students at Bartram Trail whose photo was altered.
Kjerstin Gruys, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno whose research focuses on the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, said the editing increases the hyper-visibility of girls’ bodies, which is uncomfortable and often painful for young girls to navigate. The school’s edits – which were clumsy and noticeable – only attracted further unwanted attention.
“It just really singles out women for their appearance and their supposed sexuality. But there’s no reason we have to sexualize breasts this much,” she said. “The scrutiny on girls’ bodies is really toxic.”
‘Is my bra strap showing? Is my cleavage showing? It is exhausting’
Research shows adolescence is a pivotal time for the development of self-esteem. Hyper-focus on a young person’s appearance can impact their body image across a lifespan.
Saguy said the message the school is sending has dangerous consequences for female students during a time in their lives when they are already incredibly vulnerable. Adolescence is a sensitive period during which children experiment with their appearance, with how they want to look and feel as they move through the world.
Saguy and Mason both note it can be difficult for girls to even find clothing that isn’t sexualized. The options for girls, if they’re moderately stylish, are often revealing. Midriff-baring shirts are everywhere on Tik Tok and Instagram.
“It’s just this added tax on women’s psyches, that in addition to everything else that they have to be worrying about, they also have to wonder, ‘What do I look like? How am I being perceived? Is my bra strap showing? Is my cleavage showing? How am I appearing to other people?’ It is exhausting,” Saguy said.
Being an adolescent girl is confusing and overwhelming, especially when getting mixed messages about how to be a girl that adults admire, that boys desire and that feels true to themselves. Experts say it’s tough to know what role schools should play in that, but what Mason finds encouraging is that it appears more students and their parents are seeing the impossibility of girls’ positions.
“I think this is an area where we’ve seen a lot of young teen feminists becoming really vocal,” she said. “Young girls now have a much better sense of how messed up this is and that they can clap back. I think another important part of the story is girls, with the support of their families, are pushing back on this and saying, ‘No, my body isn’t the problem here.'”
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