My science teacher pulled me out of class, told me to sit across from her at an empty lab bench, and flat out asked me if I was having sex with my boyfriend. To this day, I remember the purple hue of her thick eyeshadow, the way she nervously ran a handkerchief down her sweaty neck.
I stared at her in disbelief, wondering if anything I said would be used against me or even put 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 decided to do with it—had become a matter of public opinion in my community. This teacher felt entitled to monitor my most intimate decisions. What gave her the right?
I told her “no” for fear of telling the truth. I was then subjected to a lecture on the ills of premarital sex that left me reeling with shame at the physical pleasure I was experiencing in my relationship.
What is at stake in the abortion debate is not only the constitutionality of abortion regulation, but the right of all women to exercise control over their bodies – a right that is already being eroded daily in classrooms across the country. Across schools, discriminatory dress codes have become a means to further oppress girls and marginalized communities under the guise of an educational institution.
School officials repeatedly define girls’ bodies as offensive, sexy, provocative, problematic, and inappropriate. Exposed thighs and collarbones, oversized breasts, black hair, oversized hips, and oversized buttocks are sexualized and weaponized along with other everyday body parts.
How are girls supposed to gain the right to body autonomy as women when their bodies are objectified and devalued by the institutions they are supposed to trust? How will they develop the ability to fight back? Schools are just a microcosm of the scrutiny they will face as adult women from legislators, government agencies, religious groups, and even health care providers.
“Objectification creates a hierarchy in which objectified bodies are less human, less valued, and less privileged than others,” argues Rouhollah Aghasaleh, a professor at Humboldt State University and author of Oppressive Curriculum: Sexist, Racist, Classist, and Homophobic Practice of dress codes at school.”
Dress codes, writes Aghasaleh, “convey sexism with a male-centric 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 men are accused of being unable to control their sexual desires.” She concludes: “As part of the hidden curriculum in schools, dress codes serve to perpetuate the oppression of women and minorities, thereby promoting white male supremacy.”
As we witness the dawn of a new era in the surveillance and politicization of women’s bodies, and protests against both take place across the country, young people are demanding the right to physical autonomy in their own communities by transforming the schools they attend.
It is not enough for young people to protest and post their fears on social media. It is steady, silent work, gradually dismantling oppressive systems and rebuilding a more just society.
Looking back on that incident in high school, I wish I had had the courage and resources to speak out against my teacher’s intrusion and the gendered uniforms we were forced to wear—a task I now give to the characters in my Roman entrusted to teenagers whom I meet when authors visit schools.
These young people embody the words of Latina activist and icon Dolores Huerta: “Every moment is an opportunity to organize, every person is a potential activist, every minute is an opportunity to change the world.”