The newest installation of dress code-outrage comes from Anchorage, Alaska, where a high school swimmer was disqualified from a 100-meter race that she crushed because her swimsuit exposed too much of her butt for a referee’s taste. The suit was school-issued, and every other girl on the team was wearing the exact same one.
In a Medium post a swim coach at a nearby high school blamed the singling out of this one swimmer on racism, writing that “the issue becomes glaring when officials are overheard acknowledging that white athletes are baring too much skin as well, yet they’ve never been disqualified for a similar violation.” The 17-year-old high school senior, described as usually “tough as nails” in the Washington Post, reportedly left the meet in tears.
Behind this and every other headline about a dress violation is a person who’s had to sit through the awkward hell of listening to an adult tell them that their something is showing too much. That gong-like awakening to how your body is received in public spaces is memorable for anyone who’s ever been called out for dress code.
Alexis Robinson, 28, says the news about the swimmer’s disqualification hit especially hard, because it’s the same thing she dealt with growing up playing tennis. The first time she remembers being pulled aside for a dress code conversation was on her predominantly white collegiate tennis team; someone in the school athletic department asked that she order her skirt a size up, so it’d thoroughly cover her butt and thighs. The result was a tennis skirt that was cumbersome and brushed her kneecaps during matches. “It’s just about my shape, I have a Serena-type build,” she says. “No one’s trying to be sexy. It’s about necessity and comfort.”
Jasmin Ayala, 25, refers to herself as a “perpetual dress code violator,” spinning a joke out of something that happens to her all the time and generally sucks. Her earliest memory of getting pulled aside by an adult for her clothing was in middle school, before she says she even thought of herself as sexual. “I remember being pulled aside by my sixth grade teacher because the skirt I was wearing was too short; I felt gross and dirty,” she says, describing an ambient sense of shame that she wasn’t yet old enough to place. The whole thing is a bookmark in her memory of the first time a grown man pulled her aside and lectured her about “what you should not be as a woman.”
My first experience with having my clothing policed was in 9th grade; the violation was that my white bra was too visible underneath my white T-shirt. A principal made me put on a sweater and lectured me about how one should only wear nude bras under white shirts because they’re less visible. My face got hot, I apologized for…wearing the wrong bra??, and cried in the bathroom out of embarrassment that someone had noticed the boobs I didn’t even want to have. Now that I’m closer to my then-principal’s age, I wonder (I hope) she felt just as uncomfortable pointing to a 14-year-old’s chest and saying, your boobs are too apparent. I wonder, also, about all the teachers who checked hemlines after we said the pledge of allegiance in second period—did they feel just as disgusting policing our bodies as we did being policed?
Much has been written on how all of this impact self-esteem during an already emotionally batshit time in a girl’s life. It doesn’t end after grade school; double-standards in dress code also exist in the office and are just as awkward to deal with. Earlier this year, female flight attendants for British Airways were warned not to wear colorful bras under their white blouses. Ayala mentions that she frequently got in trouble for wearing dresses that were shorter than her knee-length apron at a recent barista job. A fellow Vice staffer, Amy Rose Spiegel, 28, remembers the embarrassment of getting called out by a manager at her job right after college, when she was 22 and hadn’t yet stocked up on adult clothes.
“I remember the ‘your attire’ line perfectly, and how she took this deep breath through her teeth in the middle of delivering it, like the message was going to be something really grievous,” Spiegel says. “It felt like the message was that my body was making men uncomfortable, more than it was I looked unprofessional.”
And Richardson carries the same lessons she learned playing college tennis into her adult job as a sports manager. Even though she lives and works in Las Vegas, where the summer temperatures are over 100 degrees most days, she routinely wears baggy sweatpants to tournaments, just to avoid a potential talking-to from a boss about her clothes.
The disqualification against the Anchorage swimmer was thankfully overturned on Wednesday, after the school district appealed the decision on the grounds that there is no way the 17-year-old hiked up her swimsuit intentionally. But unfortunately the embarrassing message has already been received, and probably wedged deep into her teenage brain: there are always going to be people leering at parts of your body that you may not even be thinking about.
No matter the context, it’s a severe bummer to sit and accept a lecture ultimately because other people can’t handle looking at you. Even through the Anchorage swimmer’s disqualification was eventually corrected, Robinson says, based on her experience, this is only the beginning. “If that’s happening now, she’s got a lifetime of issues,” she says, “just because of how she’s built.”