Are bra mandatory dress codes fair?

Is the requirement that girls wear bras to high school just another tool to shame and constrain?

The school principal at Asheville High School in Nevada recently revised the school’s dress code. New rules now require that “all female students wear bras at all times.” The reason given? To keep male students “free from the insurmountable distraction of the female body.” Interestingly, this rationale is EXACTLY what girls and women are told in Muslim countries that require women to wear Hijab – or a burqa. What’s also unsettling is the pretense, which seems to suggest that the male does not have the requisite self-control to co-exist respectfully and politely with a non-bra-wearing member of the opposite sex. These prejudicial cultural/social requirements beg the question: what is the corresponding responsibility for the boy?

From what I’ve observed, the spoken and unspoken rules about dress codes and appropriate attire are rife with contradictions. Boys, so often the perpetrators of sexually aggressive behavior, are rarely subjected to such dress codes. Nor are they punished or publicly shamed in the same way as girls. However, not all young woman succumb quietly to these edicts.

In 2016, Kaitlyn Juvik of Helena, Montana, was called to the vice principal’s office. An adult male teacher had complained of “feeling uncomfortable” that Kaitlyn wasn’t wearing a bra. Kaitlin, a senior, had gone to school braless for most of the year after dertermining that the garment was too restrictive and uncomfortable. Shocked by the sudden attention, she’d asked, “Why is it anyone else’s business, especially when I’m covered up and dressed appropriately?” Word spread through the school and the backlash was energetic. Classmates soon created a Facebook group called, “No Bra, No Problem,” in support of Kaitlyn, and a few days later 300 students came to school braless for a day of protest and camaraderie. Kaitlyn’s mother, who expressed pride in her daughter’s courage, told People magazine, “The school has bigger fish to fry than whether my daughter is wearing a bra.” One classmate said, “The problem here should not have been Kaitlyn’s attire, but the morality of the male teacher.” She added, “I hope our movement will help our generation progress to equal treatment of male and female breasts and further gender equality in general.” When the din had died down, Kaitlyn was quoted as saying, “Boys always get the excuse about their hormones, that ‘boys will be boys. Instead, perhaps people should start teaching boys not to sexualize women’s bodies.” Read more about Kaitlyn’s story here.

Wendy Wisner of Long Island had a similar experience during her senior year. Like Kaitlyn, Wendy had attended school “for years” without a bra. One day however, she was called into the principal’s office and chastised. “People can see the outline of your breasts through your shirt,” she was told. “There have been complaints.” Upset and defensive, Wendy had retorted, “Well, I’m uncomfortable with everyone’s skin-tight jeans, and low-cut shirts!” She’d then written a letter to the school newspaper. “I described the incident, and my feeling of injustice. I mentioned the fact that other girls in our school wore clothes that were much more revealing, and I explained that the shape of my breasts under clothing was natural, normal—and that our culture had it all wrong. I expressed how it felt to be pulled aside for what I was wearing, when I had done nothing to offend anyone.” Frustrated that her letter was not published, and by the sense that she was “trapped in a repressive environment,” Wendy decided to accelerate her studies and graduated a semester early. She later became a Mom, and today she is a certified lactation consultant. You can read from a selection of impassioned protest essays about the topic here.

Another dress code “violator” was Remy Altuna. The Beaumont California high school student was summoned to the front office and told by the assistant principal that her braless outfit was “a violation.” “I don’t want people to see you and assume bad things about you,” the principal had said. When Remy posted a picture of her outfit on social media there was immediately controversy, with some community members siding with the administration and others voicing their opinions that perhaps the issue was with society’s sexualization of women’s bodies. “My underwear is none of their business,” Remy said. “They should focus on “dealing with the students behaving inappropriately…rather than being concerned about people talking about my appearance.” Read more about Remy here.

Hearing these stories raises larger questions about our relationship to the female body as a society. Why are restrictions disproportionately placed on girls and not boys? Can schools create different guidelines that instruct young women about the power of their bodies and the risks associated with that power? Would teaching girls to take responsibility (and pride) in their emerging sensuality, and the importance of setting boundaries in the way they express themselves, be a wiser approach? Would this tactic help teach boys to co-exist more respectfully and authentically with girls?

Did you wear a bra every day? Did you always wear a bra to school? How has wearing a bra affected the way you dress, or even the way you feel about your breasts? Is your daughter’s experience different from yours? We would love to hear your experiences on the subject.


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