Commentary Human Rights

Utah Yearbook Scandal Shows ‘Modesty’ Is a Racket

Amanda Marcotte

A Utah high school made headlines recently by photoshopping some girls' yearbook photos to cover more skin. This story gives insight into the various ways "modesty" is used to police girls, make them insecure, and pit them against each other.

There’s been plenty of feminist criticism of the widespread tendency to use Photoshop to make women’s bodies “better”: skinnier, smoother, with fewer idiosyncratic features understood to be “flaws.” But this urge to reclaim women’s bodies and remake them according to society’s standards isn’t limited to the fashion industry.

Wasatch High School, located in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, recently made headlines when a number of high school girls at the school found that their yearbook pictures had been photoshopped to make them more “appropriate.”

Part of the reason the story’s gotten so much traction is that it’s always funny to see what wildly different cultures and subcultures define as “modest.” To most Americans who are not part of a fundamentalist community, the original outfits don’t register as “immodest” at all. Some of the shirts are sleeveless or have deep necklines, but none of them would look out of place on any group of women in a casual environment like a high school. The school appears to be so out of step with standard American social norms that it’s hard to escape wondering if there wasn’t an attempt to impose a fundamentalist standard of modesty on the girls, regardless of their own religious beliefs.

But in all the pointing and laughing over this situation, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the principle that the school was operating under is, sadly, one that is widespread in American culture. It’s a belief that because women, especially young women, have bodies that represent “sex” in a straight male-dominated society, then those bodies are eligible for more social control than the bodies of men.

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While this school is extreme, anyone who went to a high school with a dress code knows that girls get policed more than boys, often in ways that are sexually humiliating. (My school made girls kneel on the ground to measure our skirt length, for instance—a submissive gesture that has a whiff of deeply inappropriate sexuality, all under the guise of stopping inappropriate sexual displays.) Hand-wringing articles bemoaning the supposed emergence of “hook-up culture” focus mostly, or exclusively, on scolding and feigning concern in the direction of girls, with boys being left to make their own choices without much concern or judgment.

Because of all this, young women are subject to way more punishment and control from legal and other authorities for their sexuality, starting with the popularity of laws requiring minor girls to notify parents if they want an abortion. And while conservatives have been throwing a fit over the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act generally, special ire was reserved for “co-eds” who want the insurance they pay for themselves to cover contraception. Unfortunately, liberals rarely counter this kind of abusive power grab over the bodies of young women with a full-throated defense of the autonomy of young women and teenage girls—most lamely say that girls are going to have sex “anyway,” and frame abortion and contraception an unfortunate necessity, when we should be talking about it as a basic human right that helps girls take control over their lives.

But what really struck me about this story was the way that the female students themselves noticed that the school seemed to have wildly divergent standards for different girls. In fact, two girls wore the same sleeveless vest in their pictures, but only one was subject to a humiliating photoshopping of sleeves over her shoulders. Another girl told the Salt Lake Tribune that the enforcement of the school’s dress code policy was incredibly unequal in this way, with some girls being singled out for more humiliation than others. She claimed that she and another girl wore the same miniskirt, but only she was punished for it, forced to wear a pair of sweatpants with “I support Wasatch High dress code” emblazoned on them.

Clearly, the school thinks some bodies are more “immodest” than others. Sometimes women are told as such because because they are tall, busty, curvy, or some other arbitrary attribute that the prudish viewer believes women should be ashamed of. But the brutal fact of the matter is there’s often a lot of class- and race-based policing, where women of color or those who are lower-income are more swiftly labeled “slut” or otherwise deemed less modest or pure than other girls.

Indeed, a recent study followed 50 girls through a Midwestern university to gauge their attitudes about sexuality and immodesty. The researchers found was that being considered a “slut” had little to nothing to do with one’s actual sexual behavior and everything to do with imposing and maintaining social boundaries. The girls separated into two basic groups: the “high”-class girls who joined sororities and had wealthy families and the “low”-class girls who came from working-class backgrounds. Both thought the other group slutty, though they often talked about it differently.

The sense that “other” women are more indecent is one that pervades society, and high school administrators are not immune, often aligning themselves with one group of kids (usually the more privileged ones) and looking askance at the outsiders, viewing them as more indecent. “We only apologize in the sense that we want to be more consistent with what we’re trying to do in that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things,” said the superintendent, Terry Shoemaker, tacitly admitting that the school was, in fact, treating some female bodies as inherently less appropriate than others. (Never mind that all of the girls were wearing clothes appropriate for high school photos, and it’s the school officials who are struggling to understand what “appropriate” dress looks like in our society.)

As outsiders, it’s hard to know what the metric was that allowed the school to think that Girl X looked risqué with her shoulders showing but Girl Y was somehow more wholesome—every high school has its own complex metric of cliqueishness and ideas of who is in and who is out—but the larger point stands. “Modesty” is an elusive, ever-changing quality and trying to achieve it is a game women are set up to fail, especially if they’re being marginalized by virtue of their identity. By putting women in a situation where they can be assigned the quality of “immodest” or “slut,” seemingly at random, women are kept insecure and afraid, making them easier to control and dominate. Good on the girls of Wasatch High School for standing up to that nonsense.

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