SE Cupp unfiltered 05262021
SE Cupp: Florida yearbook incident teaches girls wrong lessons about their bodies
05:08 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

What to make of the digital altering of the yearbook photos of more than 80 girls at one Florida high school?

In crude digital editing, black bars or cut-and-paste swatches of the teens’ attire were clumsily patched across the chests of dozens of girls pictured in the Bartram Trail High School yearbook. This was apparently done to prevent even the possibility of their showing cleavage. The students found out about these unreasonable changes – reportedly made by a staffer serving as yearbook coordinator – when the books were released this week and they searched out their photos.

Some parents and students objected. “You’re telling my daughter that she should be ashamed of that part of her body, that she should be covering it up,” one mother said. In a statement to CNN, St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson seemed to indicate he hadn’t seen this coming. “There has never been an intent to embarrass or shame any student for the clothes that they wear. Unfortunately, we are learning a valuable lesson in the importance of process and understanding that the intent is not always the result.”

Well, yes. Perhaps it’s time for these educators to study up.

For many teenagers, the high school yearbook is an important and very special memento. It is a place for memories of academic achievements, athletic successes, inside jokes, moments with friends. It offers a physical record of a year in their young lives – a piece of personal history. In this case, it also a record of a larger history that women have struggled against for centuries: enduring misogyny.

“The yearbook coordinator made the decision to edit the photos based on her assessment that the females were not in dress code,” a district spokeswoman said in an email to CNN.

Student dress codes, in general, have been a matter of debate in recent years, with many arguing that policies that disproportionately address girls attire can perpetuate or even encourage discrimination against female students. The dress code at Bartram Trail High, a public school in the St. Johns County School District, offers general rules for both boys and girls, including restrictions on the lengths of skirts (no more than four inches above the top of the knee) and a ban on bare shoulders. In this general section of its code of conduct, it is noted, clothing that is “immodest” and “revealing” is prohibited.

Another section just for girls reiterates the no-bare-shoulders rule, warning that tops must not be “revealing or distracting,” and limits the amount of makeup girls are permitted to wear. There is a list for boys, but it’s shorter. Notably, the words “revealing” or “distracting” do not appear.

This is, of course, an obvious imbalance and one that would seem to perpetuate a culture of victim-blaming by punishing the (witting or unwitting) distractor and not the distracted. Dress codes that place more emphasis on what girls can’t wear, and why, teach both girls and boys to oversexualize girls and helps them internalize early on the idea that any girl who defies the rules will be responsible for the behaviors others have in reaction to it.

Such imbalance very clearly fails to set expectations for boys, or those overseeing them, to act appropriately and take responsibility for their actions. If they don’t, the implication is, it will be because they were “distracted” by “revealing” clothing.

By this argument, a pretty girl should cover her face to prevent boys from staring at her and she be punished if she does not. The absurd (we hope) extension of this logic, would lead a child bullied for being overweight to understand and accept the taunts of his bullies – maybe even apologize for distracting them and giving them reason to harass him; a boy in a “distracting” wheelchair should bow out of attending class at all; and those who are different in any way should do what they can to cover up those differences, lest they disrupt the focus of others (as if teens were otherwise models of focus).

In some religions and cultures, there is certainly an expectation that a woman uncovered is an immodest woman. But that is not a culture most girls at Bartram Trail High School, at least, thought they were living in (they were, incidentally, in large numbers permitted to sit for school photos in clothes later deemed objectionable). And it’s not a culture most women in America – a place where women have struggled for centuries to claim their rightful power–think they’re living in.

And yet. Consider that these high-schoolers will very soon be propelled into a country where women are in some ways more disempowered than they have been in years. The still-stark imbalance in men and women’s roles has been heightened by the ongoing pandemic, and some experts say the effects will last for years. Women are by far the majority of victims represented in the sharp worldwide rise of domestic abuse, and they suffer the impact of divorce far more dramatically than men.

Significantly, Covid-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce, depriving them of economic power as they once again shoulder the primary burden of childcare and home-keeping. And, of course, Roe v. Wade is newly under threat. We are back here once again.

The photoshopped girls of Bartram Trail High School and their parents are right to be outraged – as we all should be, on their behalf and on behalf of women and girls everywhere. The over-the-top editing of their photos represents a policing of their bodies at a time when they and their male peers should be learning to respect them instead of viewing them as a lure and a liability.

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    It is also unfair and, frankly, ineffective as a means towards desexualizing women. Covering up body parts does not decrease the attention to a girl’s (very natural) young body parts but, in fact, increases it. Being compelled to do so is a direct pathway to self-consciousness and body shame. It sends what for many young people will be a fundamental signal about how to weigh women’s autonomy and worth in the world.

    No one who looks at that yearbook now or in the future can get around the idea that women’s bodies – certain women’s bodies, that is – are both ever in the spotlight and something to hide.

    Is that the message we want to send? I can’t see how any parent, or educator, could even begin to argue that it is.