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Mental Health

A Reflection on my High School Memoir “Dress-coded”

Currently, I am twenty years old and a sophomore at IUP. Recently, I recalled a short memoir I wrote when I was seventeen years old in English class. The memoir is an account of my experience being dress-coded in my last year of elementary school, as well as the confused, embarrassed feelings it brought.

Feeling singled out and innocent, every so often I look back at this memory, each time from a different perspective. At the time of writing the memoir, I felt angry at the prospect of being oversexualized. Now, I feel that this experience is an example of the perpetuation of objectification of girls, over-sexualization, and rape culture. In a college environment, I have only realized more how deep-rooted rape culture is in all aspects of our society.

With that, I invite you to reflect on this experience with me through reading this short memoir. It has been slightly edited since it was originally written for clarity.

Dress Coded

It is sixth grade. I am twelve years old, and I don’t yet own my first bra. It is warm enough outside that my classmates are beginning to wear shorts without freezing at recess. When I wake up for school, I put on a pair of yellow Old Navy jean shorts and a white blouse with a vibrant pink flower blazing on the front of it. I am excited to wear this spring-inspired outfit. I am in science class, quiet, shy, and completely different from my future outgoing eleventh-grade self. In the middle of class, my teacher abruptly stops teaching. She asks a few girls to go to the front of the classroom, including myself. At first, I have no idea what is about to happen. Perhaps she is using us to demonstrate an example from her lesson.

“Put your hands at your sides.”

It clicked. Only weeks ago had all of the sixth-grade girls been crowded into a classroom while the boys advanced to recess. We were given a talk about modesty, a word I am fairly unfamiliar with. For the first time in my life, I have been informed that I could be a distraction to the boys’ education, and therefore, I must dress to the standards decided upon by the school. 

As she assesses us in front of the entire class, she allows each girl to return to her seat, satisfied with the length of each pair of shorts. When she reaches me, I hold my breath as if that will save me. I feel all of the eyes peering at me, the last girl on the carpet. She shakes her head. Immediately, I am crushed by her disappointment and engulfed in my own embarrassment as my fingertips graze my bare, unshaven, skinny legs. 

“Those look a little short. Your fingers go past the end of your shorts. Go to the nurse to change, now.” My cheeks burning, I trudge down the hallways to the nurse’s office, dreading the explanation I am about to give. 

An adult even slightly raising his or her voice at me is more than enough to bring tears to my eyes. This case, however, is different. This time I feel absolutely ashamed of myself, as well as confused. My outfit had not been worn with bad intentions in my innocent mind.

The damage was done. I spend the rest of the day in a pair of large boy’s basketball shorts, baggy around my thin frame, that the nurse helped me find. My white blouse remains on my body, although I no longer feel pretty in it. I hear my classmates talking throughout the day about the incident. After all, news spreads fast when the entire grade congregates and gossips on the playground at recess. 

Upon reaching my bus stop, I rush inside my home, leaving my brother confused in the driveway. I am beyond grateful that my father is not waiting for us outside. Storming into my room, I am quick to change my outfit so that my parents do not find out I had been dress coded.

It is eleventh grade. I am seventeen years old, still learning about womanhood, but I am a young woman nonetheless. Looking back at such an incident, I am no longer ashamed of myself, although I vividly recall my embarrassment. Now, I feel disappointed in my teacher- a person responsible for a class of twelve-year-olds, a trusted adult, and a woman whom I looked up to as a role model- for her ability to perpetuate society’s objectification and over-sexualization of girls and rape culture.

Lover of pumpkin pie and curiosity. IUP Nursing 2024
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