Don’t Worry, High Schools Are Still Policing and Sexualizing Teen Girls’ Bodies

One Florida high school's shoddy yearbook censorship proves sexist double standards are alive and well in American schools

Woman covering her face with an open book
A high school girl who's probably sick of her school's sexist BS
Siora Photography/Unsplash

Youth culture moves fast, and for those of us aging former teens trying to keep up with the latest TikTok trends, memes and slang while being told that the hairstyles and fashion trends of our own seemingly not-so-distant youth are no longer en vogue, it can sometimes be comforting to realize that high school hasn’t actually changed all that much since our own tenure as the adolescents at the top of the pop culture food chain. Most of the time, however, it’s actually just really disappointing, like when you find out that in this, the year 2021, schools are still aggressively policing and shaming the bodies and wardrobe choices of female students.

Holding girls to puritanical dress code standards that simultaneously sexualize and shame the female body is a time-honored tradition in American schools, so while it may be extremely disappointing, it’s not exactly surprising to hear it’s still happening. In the latest headline-making example of this great American pastime, a Florida high school took it upon itself to censor female students’ yearbook photos, using shoddy editing techniques to cover up any offending shoulders or stray glimpses of cleavage deemed in violation of the school’s dress code.

In total, the authority figures who were behind this initiative at Bartram Trail High School edited 80 photos — all of female students. The fact that this happened is deranged enough, but I’d also like to invite you to really think about the fact that this process probably involved a team of adult educators poring over photos of teen girls in search of cleavage, bare skin and other fashion choices to sexualize and condemn. This is, in a word, pretty fucked up, and the students and parents of Bartram High seem to agree.

“It made me feel a little uncomfortable that that’s what they noticed when they looked at our pictures,” Bartram freshman Riley O’Keefe, whose photo had an “awkward” black box edited over her chest, told local news outlet News4Jax.

“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,” the mother of another student whose photo was the victim of the school’s shoddy mass Photoshopping told the outlet.

But while the yearbook editing incident may be unsettling, at least the school’s sexist censorship isn’t directly interfering with its female student’s ability to receive an education, like the many other schools that routinely pull girls out of class or send them home if they’re found to be in violation of (often sexist and arbitrary) school dress codes. Just kidding! Bartram did that, too, of course. Back in March, students started a petition after 31 of them — once again, all female — were flagged for dress code violations that saw them removed from class and forced to go to the dean’s office instead.

“It’s like our bodies are sexualized and it’s more important than our education,” O’Keefe told News4Jax at the time.

I would hazard O’Keefe may be correct about that. Way back in the year 2009, I was pulled out of my 6th grade pre-algebra class because I was showing “too much cleavage.” Like a cop asking a driver if they know why they were pulled over, the two educators who took it upon themselves to drag me out of class first asked me if I knew why they’d done so, and I honestly had no idea. Why? Because I was literally an 11-year-old child who never imagined that my educators would notice or care about my cleavage, let alone remove me from class to tell me just how much they care about it. I was wrong then, and unfortunately, 12 years later, I was wrong to think anything would have changed.

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