16-Year-Old Reveals America's Real Dress-Code Problem

High school student Marion Mayer takes a stand against principal's sexist comments.
(Photo: Marion Mayer/Facebook)
Jan 22, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Sixteen-year-old Marion Mayer is trying to educate her new high school principal on how not to talk to kids, but he won't hear her.

Mayer realized two weeks ago there was a problem when her Lakeland Senior High School classmates told her about comments made by principal Arthur Martinez as he discussed the new dress code, specifically with regard to how girls should dress in school. Those remarks reportedly included the phrases “Modest is hottest” and “Boys will be boys.”

To express her dismay, Mayer posted a response on Tumblr along with a photo of herself wearing a black bikini top and holding a handwritten sign reading, “It's Alright. You're a boy.”

That, in turn, led to a meeting between Mayer and the principal. But the conversation didn’t go very well, according to Mayer’s updated post, which has gone viral.

"When I asked him, in general, what the difference is between girls and boys, he said that boys 'misbehave more' and are 'outgoing.' He said that girls are 'reserved.' "Mayer wrote, “I told him that the phrases he used were sexist and stereotypical and unfair to all genders. I explained to him that many students and people of society were offended by what he said and the phrases he used. I told him that I thought he should apologize for what he said and explain to students and society that this kind of message is not okay or appropriate. He said he wouldn’t apologize for that, but he would give me an apology, which was ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’”

Although the entirety of Martinez's original comments are unknown, according to Mayer, Martinez expanded on his views during their meeting. She wrote, "When I asked him, in general, what the difference is between girls and boys, he said that boys 'misbehave more' and are 'outgoing.' He said that girls are 'reserved.' " She added, "I explained to him that by using the phrase 'Boys will be boys,' he is excusing and condoning bad behavior from boys, such as sexual harassment and rape. 'But that’s not reality; that’s your opinion.' he said."

The principal has referred all media calls to the Polk County School District, which released a statement saying, “The district supports principals enforcing the dress code according to school board policy.”

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Students often say that such codes violate their freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union website states, “People express themselves through their dress just as they do through their speech. So, the First Amendment should protect student dress. However, school officials in many states claim dress codes are necessary to prevent gang activity, promote safety, and prevent distraction and disruption in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard a case involving a challenge to a public school dress code or uniform policy.”

Mayer is unlikely to be the one to bring such a case. She told a Florida newspaper she doesn’t want to change the school’s dress code; rather, it’s the principal’s words she finds offensive. “You [the principal] are literally sending the message to young girls, who are already struggling with self-confidence, that hiding their body makes them more attractive,” she wrote. “You are establishing a sense of shame in these young, developing minds and bodies. A human has the right to wear whatever they feel comfortable in.”

Amie Hess, assistant professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says that principals are in positions that are “designed to influence and impact young people's liveshopefully in meaningful and positive ways.” This requires a greater awareness of culturally ingrained inequalities than some administrators realize.

“In thinking about these two phrases specifically, both have many implicit messages,” says Hess. “Modest is hottest: The word ‘hot,’ when used to describe an individual's appearance, clearly has a sexual connotation. I doubt that this is what he intended. But this is precisely the problemwe throw these phrases around without thinking through what we are actually saying. This is what we expect of kids, but not of adults, and especially not adults charged with working directly with young people.”

So many beliefs, old and new, are coded into our language, often unbeknownst to adults as well as children. “Marion Mayer's brilliant response to the rationale behind her school's dress code is a reminder that purity culture, and with it the outdated and sexist notion of ‘modesty,’ serve to silence and shame girls and women into passivity,” says Lisa M. Corrigan, Ph.D., director of the Gender Studies Program in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

Corrigan says that Mayer is correct “that the continued assumption that the bodies of girls and women must be surveilled and patrolled to somehow contain the raging sexual desire of boys and men is slut shaming at its worst. Only boys and men are responsible for their aggressive or sexual behavior.”

In Mayer's opinion boys are as frustrated with this misperception as women are. She told a local news station, "I think they're happy somebody's finally speaking up and saying just because you're a boy doesn't mean you're some angry, sex-crazed teenager."