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The power of shame

I’ll speak for myself: Middle and high school were awkward for me. I think they are for many. I was never one of the cool kids, though I was insulated from feeling that too keenly because of an incredible group of friends (we now have a monthly online book club that mainly serves as a vehicle for us to virtually see one another and share updates). Even though I was never without support, I did experience the sting of shame—and more than once. Most of the times I remember were related to my body. I’m not sure why, as a society, we perpetuate the idea that, as an individual, I should care enough about what someone else’s body looks like to hurt them. I do understand why we care about our own bodies (from places of both health and aesthetic), but we do a lot of damage when we reinforce that it’s our place to objectify and shame other people. Schools can be places where we lift one another up and bear witness to the awkward-tinged joy of growing up. But when I share with friends about moments people have pointed out elements of my body and I’ve felt ashamed, they often counter me with their own school-based stories. So it would have been nice if I had been, but I wasn’t terribly surprised when I came across this article of a female swimmer who was disqualified because of the way her team’s uniform fit her body. I encourage you to read the entirety of the article, but here’s the gist: A female swimmer won her race, got out of the pool, and was promptly told that too much of her butt cheek was showing; she was disqualified (the school is appealing the decision at a couple of levels). This swimmer is reported as being “curvier.” She is also characterized as mixed-race, so it’s hard for me to believe that there isn’t also white supremacy mixed up in this. (If you want an interesting read about the hyper-sexualization of black and brown women, read here). It is abundantly clear throughout this piece that this girl was made to feel ashamed of her body and what some people assumed was her behavior (that she might intentionally hike up her suit to be more sexually appealing to others).

As a society, we objectify and police women’s bodies in horrifying ways. Women get catcalled for having the audacity to walk outside, we’re told we’re wearing inappropriate clothing when pregnant because our bodies are changing and we only have what we have, we’re blamed for rape because of what we wear, we’re expected to be uncomfortable in many work places so that we can balance looking attractive enough with not looking too attractive; the list is infinite and appalling, and it comes back to making women feel shameful about their bodies. And all of this starts so young. We learn a lot in school. We pick up on an incredible number of social norms and conventions and often, instead of questioning them, we perpetuate them. I’d argue that one of the key ways we repeat the shaming of the female body is through school dress codes. I looked up the dress code for Pittsburgh Public Schools and found this: “Students are expected to wear appropriate clothing at all times while at school. Clothing must not be of any style, length or fit that is of a provocative nature. Revealing attire that permits the exposure of undergarments or private body parts is prohibited. This prohibition shall be in effect during regular school hours and at any school-sponsored event whether on or off school premises.” While this policy doesn’t explicitly call out girls (we are talking about minors), I wonder how often a boy is told to change something because it’s too provocative. I’d imagine that boys are told to pull up their pants to not show their underwear on a somewhat regular basis, but I imagine a much greater percentage of these kinds of infractions have to do with the length of shorts or skirts or the neckline of a top or the presence of bra straps (though not wearing a bra is also considered “provocative” in many places). Adults get to decide this standard or sometimes boys who blame their inability to focus on school on a girl going about her day. A dress code violation is punitive, and it casts blame on the wrong party. Girls shouldn’t be chastised for being comfortable, or confident, or having bodies that take up space. Dress codes circumvent the hard conversations we need to have around what kinds of actions are permissible, who is responsible for their own thoughts, and why your reaction to someone else’s body has everything to do with you and nothing to do with the other person. In the article about the female swimmer, the author reported that parents had taken pictures of this girl’s butt to show that she was being inappropriate. An adult took a picture of a minor’s body, showed it to other people, and believed they were in the right. Because they have more power in this dynamic, adults aren’t called out when they do something that is wrong. Schools deal in these power dynamics all the time. The hierarchy of conventional schooling means that adults are right, kids are wrong, and when kids are wrong, it’s okay to shame them so that they learn a lesson. Gray areas are messy and complicated, so adults in schools form rules so that they can try to avoid some of the mess; I understand the expediency of doing that, but we have to remember that it comes at a cost. When a school prioritizes policies over conversations, it takes away many opportunities for students to engage in meaningful and lifelong learning; it also leaves the door wide open for shame. I’ll leave on a positive note: The appeals boards also thought the disqualification should not stand. Some key adults who knew this girl well stood up for her and helped to ensure that her win wouldn’t be taken away. They can’t take away the immediate reaction of the referee, nor are they able to hold at bay parents and other people who think her body should be a source of objectification. There’s a long way to go, both in these personal moments and in our systems and traditions, which reinforce unfair (sexist, often white supremacist) patterns of behavior. But I said I’d leave us with positivity, and one way of doing that is to remind you of what you can do. If you interact with a school as a student, teacher, administrator, or family member, I urge you to take a look at their policies. Do they uphold freedom of expression or deal in the currency of shame? I encourage you to have hard and necessary conversations with the folks empowered to make changes. Do you want help figuring out how to have conversations with teachers or administrators about what to do? Let us know; we’d love to help. Image courtesy of


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