My science teacher pulled me out of class, told me to sit across from her at an empty lab table and asked me, point blank, if I was having sex with my boyfriend. To this day, I remember the purple shade of her heavy eyeshadow, the way she nervously patted her sweaty neck with a tissue.
I stared at her in disbelief, wondering if anything I said would be used against me, or even land me in the office of the principal — a nun who ran our private Catholic school like a military officer.
It was only in hindsight that I realized that my body — and what I chose to do with it — had become a matter of public opinion in my community. This teacher believed herself justified to police my most intimate choices. What gave her the right?
Afraid to tell the truth, I told her “no.” I was then subjected to a lecture on the evils of pre-marital sex that left me reeling with shame about the physical pleasure I experienced in my relationship.
What’s at stake in the abortion debate isn’t just the constitutionality of regulating abortion, but the right of all women to wield control over their bodies — a right that already is eroded daily in classrooms across the country. In schools everywhere, discriminatory dress codes have become a means to further oppress girls and marginalized communities under the guise of an educational institution.
Repeatedly, school officials define girls’ bodies as offensive, sexy, provoking, problematic and inappropriate. Exposed thighs and collarbones, too-large breasts, Black hair, too-wide hips and a too-big butt, along with other mundane body parts are sexualized and weaponized.
How will girls gain the right for body autonomy as women, if their bodies are being objectified and devalued by the institutions they are told to trust? How will they develop the capacity to fight back? Schools are but a microcosm of the control they will face, as adult women, from lawmakers, government agencies, religious groups, even healthcare providers.
“Objectification creates a hierarchy in which objectified bodies are less human, less valued and less privileged than others,” argues Rouhollah Aghasaleh, a Humboldt State University professor and author of the article “Oppressive Curriculum: Sexist, Racist, Classist, and Homophobic Practice of Dress Codes in Schooling.”
Dress codes, writes Aghasaleh, “convey sexism with a male centered gaze and racism with White middle-class norms that serve as a hidden curriculum…” They also play a role in victim blaming and rape culture, he adds.
Sexist dress codes, she writes, treat girls “like objects while males are assumed to be incapable of controlling their sexual desires.” She concludes, “As part of the hidden curriculum in schools, dress codes serve to perpetuate oppression of females and minorities, thereby promoting the hegemony of the white male.”
As we witness the beginning of a new era in the policing and politicizing of women’s bodies, and as protests against both are happening across the country, young people are demanding the right for bodily autonomy in their own communities by transforming the very schools they attend.
It is not enough for young people to yell in protest and post about their anguish on social media. It is steady, quiet work that gradually dismantles oppressive systems and rebuilds a more just society.
Looking back to that high school incident, I wish I’d had the courage and resources to speak out against my teacher’s intrusion and the gendered uniforms we were forced to wear — a job I have now entrusted to the characters in my novel and the teens I meet during author school visits.
These young people embody the words of Latina activist and icon, Dolores Huerta: “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”