Eighty girls at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County, Florida recently opened their yearbooks to find their photos had been altered. Tops were edited to appear more "modest and not revealing or distracting,” per the school's dress code. But then some photos used a black bar to cover girls' chests. And all of this was done without any of the students' knowledge or consent.
According to St. Johns County School District spokeswoman, Christina Langston, who spoke to The New York Times, those edits were necessary, apparently, so that the students' photos wouldn't be removed altogether. But backlash against the school board's decision to do this was swift — and not it's not a first occurence, either.
"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," Adiran Bartlett, the mother of a student at Bartram Trail High School, told The St. Augustine Record on Friday.
The official St. Johns County School District dress code states that girl students' "tops and shirts must cover the entire shoulder and they must be modest and not revealing or distracting." Skirts must also be "no shorter than four inches (4") above the top of the knee." But this is a rule that students and parents alike have long deemed sexist and outdated — especially when school officials have allegedly used this mandate to report any student that they want, and call it a dress code "violation."
In March, 31 female students received notice from teachers for violating of the code. According to The St. Augustine Record, girls were asked to raise their hands above their heads to see if any skin would be exposed. One student was also asked by a male teacher to replace a jacket covering her sports bra with a white tee shirt. But these instances are hardly relegated to this one school in Florida.
The history of policing what girls wear in school is storied — and fraught with sexism. It's also rarely applied to boys; at this same school, photos of boys on the swim team in their Speedos were allowed to be published in the yearbook without any digital editing. But for years, girl students have been subjected to double standards in school dress codes, and all are done under the guise of avoiding "distraction."
In 2017, a teenager in Illinois had to retake her yearbook photo after initially wearing a sweater that showed her shoulders. In 2014, a Utah high school added sleeves to yearbook photos of girls that were dressed "inappropriately." And these decisions are oft-cited as a benefit to other students — to avoid "distraction" — but never really to the student wearing those clothes. This coded language indicates a need to control how girls are perceived sexually at a time when they are developing and most vulnerable to internalising body policing.
Riley O'Keefe, a 15-year-old Bartram Trail student who had a black bar edited over her chest, said that students whose images were altered ultimately felt "sexualized and exposed," according to The New York Times. Students and families at the Bartram Trail school have continued to push back on this hyperfocus around girls' bodies. Following the notices that were sent out in March, O'Keefe created a Change.org petition to change the school and St. Johns County School District dress code.
Despite these ongoing efforts, it's unclear what the school board is willing to prioritize. They offered to refund yearbook costs for students that were unsatisfied with the editing approach taken, and they said they're open to "receiving feedback from parents/guardians/students on making this process better for next year."
Refinery29 has reached out to the St. Johns County School District for comment.