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My Leggings Are Too Sexy; His Tank Top Isn’t
Jeimmy Hurtado
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“You with the spandex, come here.” My principal, who was lounging on the school security desk, motioned with her index finger for me to come forward. My legs stayed glued to the ground as I glanced around at the other students who rushed passed me. It took me a moment to register that she was talking to me. I was the only one wearing spandex, but why was she calling me over? Every bad thing I had done immediately popped into my head—such as when I overused the school printer or accidentally took the school’s art brushes home without writing my name on the list. I stepped forward.

“Go to the guidance counselor, and pick up a pair of gym shorts,” she commanded.

She stood up and walked through the double doors into the guidance office. I followed her but my mind was elsewhere. I was getting in trouble for wearing leggings?

In my school, getting “gym-shorted” or “gym-shirted” is a punishment imposed on students who disobey the dress code, although I have only seen it imposed on girls. We have to wear oversized, baggy blue shorts or shirts with the school logo over our clothes all day. Usually girls get gym-shorted for wearing short shorts, so I didn’t understand why my leggings were considered prohibited. (They determine what is too short by making you stand with your arms extended by your sides; if the hem of your shorts or dress doesn’t reach your fingertips, you’re officially breaking the rules.)

I get good grades, and rarely get in trouble. I have avoided getting gym-shorted by wearing jeans most days. When I arrived in the guidance office the counselor sighed as if he had been doing this all morning.

“Do you have $5?” he asked me.

“Yes. Why?”

“The gym shorts are $5.” As if the humiliation of wearing the gym shorts wasn’t punishment enough, they wanted my money too? Reluctantly, I took the singles out of my bag and, in exchange, I was handed the wonderful gift of gym shorts.

“Sign this paper as well.” It was a list of girls who had already been gym-shorted for the day. I snuck a peek at the clock as I sighed: 8:25. “Great, now I am late for class and broke,” I thought.

As much as I wanted to refuse to wear the gym shorts, that would be considered an infraction that could result in suspension. I would rather pay $5 and be humiliated than be suspended and have it on my school transcript. Still, it felt grossly unfair.

Bombarded and Humiliated

When I walked into class late, I expected my teacher to reprimand me, but instead he raised one eyebrow at my shorts and went back to explaining the lesson. I saw my classmates’ widened eyes as I fell back into my chair. I was bombarded with questions.

“You got gym-shorted?” one student asked.

“What were you wearing?” asked another.

“I was just wearing leggings!” I said.

“Wow you got gym-shorted for wearing leggings?”

image by YC-Art Dept

I had the sudden urge to shout to the class that I was just running late and chose the first, most comfortable piece of clothing I could find. But I didn’t. I slouched in my seat, tuned my teacher out and covered my face with my sweater, one eye peeking out.

The next day things went back to normal but I kept thinking about how humiliated I had felt and how unfair it was.

Don’t Call Me a Distraction

The New York City Department of Education (DOE) dress code lists specific types of clothing that are prohibited: “extremely brief garments such as tube tops, net tops, halter tops, tank tops, spaghetti straps, plunging necklines (front and/or back), clothing that exposes mid-section of the body, mini-skirts, and see-through garments.” But leggings or spandex are not on the list.

So why was I gym-shorted? The DOE dress code also says enforcing a dress code is necessary “in order to provide an environment conducive to promoting educational excellence with minimum distractions and disruptions of the learning environment.” Did the principal punish me because my butt looked too sexy and she thought I’d be distracting the boys and therefore disruptive? I have no idea; she told me she didn’t have time to be interviewed for this story.

Educators shouldn’t be allowed to punish us for wearing clothing that isn’t prohibited in the dress code—like my leggings. Students should have a clear understanding of what is considered appropriate school dress. Indiscriminate calling out and punishing isn’t fair. How can you follow rules if you don’t know what they are?

Targeting Girls

And, in general, instead of forcing women to cover up, why aren’t men taught to have self-control? I think it’s unfair that women are often blamed when men are accused of sexual harassment; some say women are asking for attention because of how they are dressed. But I think how a woman chooses to dress should not be an excuse for men’s (or boys’) lack of self-restraint and rude behavior.

Being gym-shorted has made me feel self-conscious and think twice about what I wear now. I don’t like having to wonder if my butt or breasts might be distracting boys or preventing them from paying attention in school.

Although the dress code applies to both boys and girls, it seems to be mostly targeted to girls, which is sexist. Only a few rules actually impact boys, like the “no hats” rule, while the vast majority of rules are clearly intended to police girls’ wardrobes only. How is it fair that boys are allowed to wear muscle tanks that reveal their broad shoulders, while women are restricted from wearing halter tops and tops with spaghetti straps?

Other Rules at Other Schools

Although these rules apply to all New York City high schools, I talked to students at other high schools and discovered that dress codes are enforced differently depending on your school. Mario Sanchez, a sophomore at a Manhattan high school, didn’t even know if there was a dress code at his school. “Kids pretty much wear what they want,” he said.

Brianna Lackwood, a junior in Brooklyn, said when students break the code at her school, they either have to change into their gym clothes or cover up with a sweater or jacket. She noticed the dress code seems to mostly affect girls. “If guys have their pants down too low, they’re just asked to pull them up,” she said. Sophomore Crystal Stevens shared that her high school in Queens has an even more lenient rule: “At the entrance, there’s a board that reads, ‘Please take off your hat.’ That’s it.”

If it were up to me, a reprimand would be the best punishment for a first infraction. You wouldn’t have to tell me twice not to wear something a teacher told me was not allowed according to the dress code.

If educators think a reprimand isn’t enough or there should be a second punishment if the student doesn’t comply, the punishment should not involve public shaming. This sends young women the message that you should be punished for wearing clothes that accentuate your body—and that your body is shameful.

I also think educators should be more diligent about calling out boys. I understand that gender inequality doesn’t just exist in my school; women in society are often shamed for dressing the way they want. But a step to bring us closer to gender justice would be to alter the dress code in a way that addresses both sexes equally.

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(NYC-2016-11-09)

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