Opinion: What’s really at stake in the abortion debate

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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.

Now, 27 years later, it’s no longer a science teacher monitoring my body—what I can and can’t do with it—but instead a group composed of six Supreme Court justices and the state of Georgia, where I live live today, has grown .

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.

Before the pandemic, I spent two years researching the impact of sexist, racist, and anti-LGBTQ dress codes on girls and marginalized communities. The research resulted in a co-authored young adult novel, Does My Body Offend You?, written with scholar Marie Marquardt. The book touches on issues such as intersectional feminism, alliance and student protest.
During our research, we learned about a Florida teen who was pulled out of class for not wearing a bra and asked to have her nipples covered with band-aids. An 11-year-old in Maryland was fined for wearing leggings. An eighth grader in Georgia was subpoenaed because of a rip in her jeans. In North Carolina, a sophomore was fined for wearing beads in her traditional African hairstyle. In Michigan, a Catholic high school threatened students with a “modest poncho.”
In most cases, girls wasted valuable class time over spaghetti straps, yoga pants, hair extensions, and even the size of their breasts—because, to quote one teacher, “women with smaller breasts could get away with more than women with larger breasts.” According to Monique Morris, social justice scholar and author, black girls are the most targeted group when it comes to assault.

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.

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A 2020 study by University of Wisconsin professor Gretchen Whitman further links the process of objectification in schools to the erosion of women’s rights.

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.

Adopting a gender-neutral dress code can be a powerful tool in the fight for justice and freedom. Such inclusive dress codes also prohibit clothing with racist or LGBTQ-phobic messages to create a safe environment for students to use clothing as a means of self-expression. Even gender-neutral uniforms have the ability to break down economic and social barriers between students—such as my experience attending a private school, where many of my classmates were from wealthy families, while my family was from modest backgrounds.
Students who accept this responsibility have gained benefits in working with national organizations or in establishing their own school policies related to student self-expression – such as the stigma of Afro hair and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The National Youth Rights Association (NYRA), the ACLU and Lambda Legal accompany young changemakers as they advocate for reform.

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.”

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