The disqualification of Alaska swimmer Brecklynn Willis for how her swimsuit fit led tennis legend Billy Jean King to say, “The constant policing of women’s bodies is offensive, sexist, and wrong.”

Why do we still shame girls for their bodies? 

Sanction of Alaska swimmer for fit of her team-issued bathing suit spurs national uproar  

To dive into the inequities of dress codes that target girls, look at what happened to a star swimmer from an Alaska high school as she climbed out of the pool after winning her race earlier this month. A judge disqualified Dimond High School senior Brecklynn Willis because the teen’s school-issued team swimsuit revealed too much of her buttocks.

A blog post by a swim coach from another Anchorage-area high school questioned whether the referee singled out the teen because of her full body type and mixed-race heritage. “What has been carried out on pool decks in Alaska over the last year is nothing short of racism, sexism, body-shaming, and child abuse. … It is only these girls with their darker skin and unique bodies who have been singled out. The amount of mental and emotional trauma these girls have suffered is inexcusable,” wrote swim coach Lauren Langford. “What’s clear is that these girls’ bodies are being policed — not their uniforms. We need to let these girls know that no one can pass judgment on their bodies for any reason.”

The Anchorage School District protested the denial of Brecklynn’s victory, saying she was eliminated “based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body. We cannot tolerate discrimination of any kind, and certainly not based on body shape.” Less than an hour after the district announced a formal appeal and amid growing national outrage, the Alaska School Activities Association overturned the disqualification.

The reversal led to applause from female athletes everywhere. “The constant policing of women’s bodies is offensive, sexist, and wrong. This must end,” said tennis legend Billie Jean King on Twitter.

King is right; this policing should stop at swim meets and at school. Punishing girls for how their jeans fit or too much eyeliner conveys that schools regard them as distractions to be restrained rather than students to be respected.

A new analysis of dress codes in Washington, D.C., public high schools by the National Women’s Law Center found the rules on what is acceptable still largely fall on female students and still censure personal choices. The analysis builds on the center’s 2018 report, “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies and Bias in D.C. Schools.” That report concluded black girls suffer disproportionately from dress and grooming rules and can fall behind because of being pulled out of class for their clothes, hair or makeup. For example, black girls have been threatened with suspension for cornrows or braided hair extensions, which dress codes vilify as distractions or dangers.

“Although we focus on D.C., this is an issue that is popping up everywhere,” said Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, the center’s director of educational equity and senior counsel. “It is usually girls of color who are dress coded, girls who don’t fit the stereotype of what white femininity is, girls who are curvier.”

Young women increasingly are fighting dress codes that punish them for wearing anything deemed “unduly revealing and distracting.” In Washington, students argued that the everyday occurrence of girls being scrutinized and shamed for their bodies reinforced the sexualization of girls and women. A measure of their success: Starting in the 2020-2021 school year, district schools will be prohibited from issuing out-of-school suspensions for dress code violations.

Girls are fighting back against dress codes that sexualize them.

Student activism is the driver of several Georgia-based petitions on A Morgan County middle student left her orientation this summer feeling the message to girls was “because our bodies are changing, we have to hide them.”

Her petition declares: “It’s not okay to tell girls that because they’re starting to grow and their figure is starting to fill out that they have to hide their bodies. This ruins a young women’s body imagery. This is body shaming.” The petition seeks more freedom for girls to wear shorts, especially given the heat. A similar student petition aimed at Hall County Schools states, “Being that we are in Georgia, it is always fairly warm. Most of the shorts that students will wear will come a little above the knee, which, of course, is against dress code.”

“These girls are just looking for comfort on 90-degree days,” said Onyeka-Crawford. “We have to create schools where everyone can be comfortable without worrying whether or not some adult will think they are dressed in something inappropriate. More people should look back to when they were dress coded and remember how disempowering that felt. Our job is to empower students.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.