Women grow up knowing that if we have a problem with the status quo, the burden is on us to change—cover up and don’t look slutty, don’t drink so much, learn how to defend yourself. Don’t be a distraction.
As a college student, these societal expectations are repulsive. Teachers should be educating students on how to challenge cultural norms, expand their minds, and think critically about the messages they receive. Instead, young girls are being humiliated, objectified, and sexualized—with emotionally devastating consequences.
A group of inspiring young women at Charleston County School of the Arts in North Charleston, South Carolina are sick of watching this discrimination and sexism in their school. They’ve had enough with being told they’re “a distraction” to boys; they’re immersed in a culture where female students face sexual harassment and catcalls in the hallways, while the administration seemingly turns a blind eye.
Inspired by reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in class, these students are proudly emblazoning scarlet letters on their chests, uniting against a community to show that their humanity and womanhood is Not ‘A’ Distraction.
The Scarlet Letter is an awesome way to protest this. How did you all coordinate the idea and decide to take action?
Caroline Hamrick: Almost two weeks ago, an announcement was made at the end of the day that a new dress code enforcement policy would be put in place where if a student is questionably out of dress code, the teacher or administrator is required to remove them from class and not let them back in until the problem is fixed. Quite a few students were understandably frustrated with this news, so a few of my friends and I talked at the end of the school day and decided to get together and do something about it.
A group chat was made and ideas were tossed around until we collectively settled on The Scarlet Letter. The AP English Language and Composition class (mostly juniors) just read the book, so the storyline is fresh in the school’s mind. We used it because in the book, she makes a choice with her body that is viewed as sinful or against society’s morals, so she is publicly shamed and humiliated. The man involved, however, is not ridiculed at all.
This parallels the double standards in the school system when enforcing dress codes, including boys rarely being dress coded for hats or tank tops vs. a girl in a short skirt, the sexist things teachers comment when we are being called out like slut, whore, skank, being told we are asking for it, being asked if our fathers really let us out like that, etc. Even the reasoning behind the dress code is sexist: being a distraction to males. Being responsible for someone else objectifying and sexualizing adolescent female bodies is anything but our fault, and we students need to be taught that while our minds are still growing and our views are being formed.
Have other students been receptive at school? Have you faced any pushback?
Caroline Hamrick: We have gotten plenty of positive feedback and plenty more students showing support than we could have imagined, but we also have had some backlash through Facebook from some students, middle and high school alike. Some are posting Bible quotes about modesty, some are stating we wouldn’t have a problem with enforcement if we just followed the dress code, and one student even brought desserts for anyone not wearing an “A” the Thursday the movement started. But, in the midst of the hate, many have shared personal experiences of being called out (many were even fully following dress code!), and we have gotten great support from people in and out of school.
Mary Grace Hutzler: At first glance, most assume we are arguing with the dress code itself when we are only concerned with the way it is being enforced currently. A reasonable dress code is expected at any high school but there is no reason teachers and administrators should go out of their way to make rude and sexist comments about the way we are dressed. I think if those doubting this movement and what we stand for were willing to learn more about it, it might change their mind.
How have the teachers and staff responded to the movement?
Alanna Nickles: We were thrilled that we even received support from teachers; most of the support was quiet praise though. We did, however, have one teacher who even wore an “A!” Some teachers were confused by what the “A” meant at first and thought it was either an English project or that it even stood for Anarchy. I think the main problem that we have had with this movement is that people think our “A” simply stands for adultery, which I suppose is understandable. Although, the point of The Scarlet Letter, I believe, is much deeper than just adultery and it was almost surprising to me that not enough teachers thought the same.
When school administration singles out female students, what message do you feel it sends to the school community?
Cora Schipa: They send the message that what a girl is wearing is valued over what she came to school to do, which is to learn.
Olivia Levins: I feel like it sends out a strong message of “As a girl, how other people feel about your clothing is more important than you getting to class” due to the way that the dress code is enforced and carried out. It can be demeaning and takes away from students physically being in class.
Caroline Hamrick: Young girls should not be humiliated for something they looked in the mirror and felt good in, especially at an age where it is hard to do just that. They were brave enough to come to school in what they like, and shooting them down will do nothing but permanently damage their self-esteem.
Have the actions by the administration affected you in an emotional way? How do these comments about dress codes affect how you view your body?
Lauren Ryba: I have always been insecure about my body. I’ve always had a bigger body and chest, and people have made me very aware of it. I struggled with eating disorders when I was younger, and everything has had an emotional toll on me. Hearing administration saying things like “if you’re a bigger girl, you need to wear longer skirts,” is not only fat shaming, but also brings students down. It is also bringing the “wrong” things about their body to their attention. The student might have always viewed his/her/their self as a beautiful and normal person, but after being told that their body is “too big for their outfit” they think that they are fat or ugly. Words can hurt a person. Words are more powerful than people think, especially if you’re telling them to a child/young adult.
Olivia Levins: Personally, I was once asked by a staff member if I was “wearing any underwear” in the middle of our cafeteria. She then removed me to change into sweatpants. I was taken to the office, where I was told that the “way you dress affects how people view you” and my mother was called. I felt emotionally drained and couldn’t help but cry. It was embarrassing to have been singled out and asked such an inappropriate question in a public scenario. The clothes they changed me into did not suit my body type and I felt uncomfortable for the rest of the day.
You were quoted in other articles saying the school is trying to control female students’ bodies with the (in my opinion) very lame/ignorant “boys will be boys” argument. Have you seen this treatment in other ways at school?
Lucy Wallace: The whole argument of “boys will be boys” is completely ridiculous. It’s a lie we’re told from day one, and whether we realize it or not it’s the automatic reaction of our society. Whether it’s used to enforce the dress code, discredit victims of sexual assault, or even just excuse what should be inexcusable behavior, I’ve heard the phrase “boys will be boys” uttered too many times. Even during elementary school cotillion when boys would make comments about girls’ bodies, we were told to ignore them and that they would eventually mature. This is obviously false, since the same little boys who would make fat jokes in fourth grade are the same boys you see making comments about girls’ bodies in the hallway and catcalling girls on the street.
Do you hope to see boys at school become involved in the movement? Do you think they could be allies to the cause?
Caroline Hamrick: Many boys and a few male teachers have been completely supportive of the cause! A significant amount of the students wearing an “A” on the first day were male. We have had people of multiple genders support our cause because it does affect more than just women; one student in particular is one of the few males to get dress coded (and he gets dress coded repeatedly). He wears clothing typically marketed for females and teachers call him out constantly. Even though he has found what he feels comfortable in (and totally looks amazing in) teachers shoot him down because it is too “form fitting” or “revealing,” even though many things he wears are in dress code.
Cheyenne Koth: Many boys already are! We’re always ready to accept people who believe in the cause and want to be involved. Any person of any gender can be an ally to our movement.
Peyton Corder: Our movement is about gender equality so it would be counterproductive of us to not wish for boys to join in.
What do you hope to see change in your school with the Not ‘A’ Distraction movement?
Juliette Cain: I hope to see a change in how teachers talk to students. Last year I was told that I was “selling myself the wrong way” by a female teacher. I was wearing high-waisted jeans and a crop top and you could at most see a centimeter of my midriff when I wasn’t being careful. I didn’t say anything then, but it made me feel so bad about myself and my body and I don’t think any other girls should have to experience that.
Lucy Wallace: I hope the Not ’A‘ Distraction movement will inspire students not just in our school but all over the nation to stand up for their right to be comfortable and celebrate their bodies instead of feeling the need to hide themselves. Hopefully the movement will discourage dress code bias towards gender and body type, and make the dress code be carried out in a more respectful way. It’s often forgotten that students are people too, and what you say about the way someone looks can really affect them for the rest of their lives. Humiliation and hurting feelings are not a part of the dress code, and definitely not necessary to enforce it.
Cassie Simpson: As a result of this movement, we would like to establish equal enforcement of dress code across all races, genders and body types, and also disseminate the recognition of these unfair policies throughout the nation.
If you had to sum up your message in a few sentences, what would you want people to know?
Mary Grace Hutzler: It is damaging to us as young women to be told that the way we choose to clothe ourselves has become a distraction to boys. We have grown up being taught that the way we present our body is more important than our education. A person, man or woman, should receive respect from others regardless of what they are wearing. I am much more than a distraction.
I think your movement will empower so many other women and girls to speak out against the constant objectification of our bodies. If you could say something to them, what would you want them to hear?
Alanna Nickles: Believe that you are more than sexy, more than your weight and more than just a male counterpart. You are a human being who deserves respect and fair treatment. Do not let anyone subjugate you to anything less than that.
Cheyenne Koth: Honestly, I’d want girls to know that they ARE more than a distraction, and that they should not dictate the decisions they make about their body based on others, because their body is theirs, and theirs alone, and they should never accept degradation from someone who has no claim to them or their body.
Lauren Ryba: I have a lot to say, but we don’t have enough time for that. I just want to say that you should never feel differently about yourself because of what someone says. You are you and you should never want to change just to make other people happy. Wear what you want to wear. Wear what is comfortable to you. You only have one life, so don’t let other people guide you through it. It’s up to you to love yourself and make yourself happy. Don’t let other people interfere with your happiness.
About the blogger: Laura Porter is a student at George Washington University majoring in political communication with a minor in psychology. After taking three semesters off of school for her own mental health struggles, Laura became passionate about advocating for increased awareness of mental illness among college students, specifically eating disorder awareness. Laura served as president of Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge at GW (SPEAK GW) as well as a communications intern at Active Minds Inc.
This content was originally posted on Proud2bme.org in 2015.