Female students at a Florida high school were shocked to see their shoulders and chests covered up in edited photos. The push for gender-neutral dress codes in schools continues.

By Alex Hazlett
May 24, 2021
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The yearbook portraits of 80 girls at a high school in Florida were digitally altered to cover their shoulders and chests, in an attempt to make the outfits conform to the school dress code. 

An image of an open yearbook on a colorful background.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Officials at Bartram Trail High School said they chose to edit the images rather than exclude them from the yearbook, reported News4Jax. They raised t-shirt necklines with black bars, covered shoulders, and in one case overlaid a piece of plaid shirt to mask part of a student's chest. The changes were glaring.

At least one student said, however, that her attire was deemed fine in-person on the day her photo was taken. In addition, according to local news outlets, the portraits ran alongside unaltered photos from student sports and activities—including images of members of the boy's swim team in Speedos. The juxtaposition, coming a couple months after female students were pulled out of class to have their attire reviewed by staff, created a sense of outrage locally and nationally. Students were upset about the scrutiny of their clothes.

“It made me feel a little uncomfortable that that’s what they noticed when they looked at our pictures,” Bartram Trail freshman Riley O’Keefe told News4Jax.

Dress code violations, and yearbook picture editing in particular, have generated blowback before. In 2014, a Utah high school edited photos of girls for a similar reason as Bartram Trail. Also like the Florida high school, no male photos were altered. 

Many dress codes in public schools require clothing that is "modest" or "not distracting," according to the policies. Female students' attire tends to be policed more explicitly and extensively, with rules about the width of straps on tank tops and precise lengths of skirts and shorts allowed. 

In addition, the ambiguity of school dress codes creates wide latitude for arbitrary enforcement. Usually, consequences fall more frequently on girls and students of color. In the St. Johns County School District, where Bartram Trail High School is located, 78 percent of dress code violations went to female students, according to News4Jax.

Contested Territory

Pushback against school dress codes occurs regularly, largely driven by the female students who are subjected to them. In a 2014 feature in The Atlantic, Maggie Sunseri, who created a documentary about school dress codes, described being frustrated by the logic behind them. Namely, that girls, through their clothing choices, were responsible for boys’ behavior. That rationale brings to mind old justifications that women who were sexually assaulted were “asking for it,” with their clothing choices. 

There are models of more inclusive dress codes, such as the one created by the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Women. Other school districts, including in San Jose and Evanston, Illinois, have adopted it in part or outright, explained Vox. The updated code applies to all students evenly, regardless of gender identity or expression. Certain parts of everyone's bodies ("genitals, buttocks, and nipples") must be covered. Cleavage is unregulated. Leggings are allowed. Profanity or hate speech on clothing is banned.

Dress codes—in school and outside of it—have been the site of activism, as advocates pushed for greater religious and cultural inclusion. In 2017, the United States Army lifted its ban on hair locks—styles of twisting hair that are common among Black people. The Marine Corps removed a similar restriction in 2015. Service members told the New York Times that they'd felt unfairly targeted by the rules, which required them to maintain other, more time and money-intensive hairstyles. That same year, the Army gave more supervisors the ability to approve religious exemptions to the dress code. The change paved the way for simpler accommodations of service members who wanted to wear beards, turbans, or hijabs.

Ultimately, advocates of clearer dress codes want the focus to be on what should be occurring in school: learning. As O'Keefe said when referring to girls being taken out of class in March, "It's like our bodies are sexualized and it's more important than our education."

The school district has offered refunds to students whose photos were changed.