It started with a sunburn.
Lizzy Martinez, 17, a junior at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Florida, had been swimming and tanning all weekend at a water park in Orlando. But when Monday morning came and she had to get dressed for school, Lizzy’s bra felt painfully constricting on her burned skin.
So she ditched the bra and purposely chose to wear something dark and loose — a long sleeve, oversize, crew neck gray T-shirt — so she wouldn’t draw attention to her chest.
But around 10 a.m., about 15 minutes into her veterinary assistance class, Lizzy was called out of the classroom for a meeting with two school officials, Dean Violeta Velazquez and Principal Sharon Scarbrough. They asked her why she wasn’t wearing a bra.
She said she told her school administrators about the sunburn. They insisted that she was violating the school dress code. (The 2017-18 Code of Student Conduct does not say bras must be worn by female students.) They told her to put on an undershirt because boys were “looking and laughing” at her, a detail she later challenged. “No one said a thing to me until I got to the dean’s office,” Lizzy said.
She was crying and wanted to go home, so Lizzy’s mother, Kari Knop, a registered nurse, was called at work. “I said, ‘Lizzy, I’m working,’” Knop said in a phone interview. “I told her, ‘Can you just put the undershirt on and call it a day?’”
Lizzy was embarrassed and angry but she relented. When she returned wearing the undershirt, the school principal had left. The dean, according to Lizzy, instructed her to “stand up and move around for her.”
“I looked at her and said, ‘What do you mean?’” Lizzy said. “I was a little creeped out by that.” The school has a strict disciplinary policy and she didn’t want to appear defiant. (School officials refused to comment, except in a statement.)
The dean told her that her nipples were still showing through her T-shirt and she should use bandages to cover them up. “She told me, ‘I’m thinking of ways I could fix this for you.’ She said, ‘I was a heavier girl and I have all the tricks up my sleeve,’” Lizzy said.
Lizzy was given four adhesive bandages from the school clinic. “They had me ‘X’ out my nipples,” she said.
“They hurt,” Lizzy said. “If you ever put Band-Aids on your nipples, those things are stiff. Any time you move around you can just feel it. It’s like an annoying, rubbing feeling, especially in a sensitive area.” She wore the bandages for 45 minutes before she began crying in class. Her best friend took her to the bathroom and Lizzy lifted her shirt to show her the bandages. Then she peeled them off and contacted her mother.
“I got a text from Lizzy saying, ‘This is not a dress code violation and I feel completely attacked,’” said Knop. She was adamant that if Lizzy had been wearing a see-through or form-fitting shirt without a bra, she wouldn’t have allowed her daughter to leave the house. “The fact is that she wore a long sleeve T-shirt that was not see-through. It wasn’t even flattering,” said Knop. “So to say she was trying to be a distraction is absolutely absurd.”
“She didn’t even tell me about the Band-Aids until 28 hours later,” she said. “She was so embarrassed.”
In a prepared statement, Braden River High School officials said that the situation “should have been handled differently.” They maintained that Lizzy was in “violation” of the dress code and that their intention was to “assist the student in addressing the situation.”
The incident happened two weeks ago — Lizzy’s initial tweet about the incident went viral — but the backlash is still going strong.
I decided not to wear a bra today and got pulled out of class bc one of my teachers complained that it was a “distraction to boys in my class.” My school basically told me that boys’ education is far more important than mine and I should be ashamed of my body. @Manateeschools 🙂
— liz (@lizzymartineez) April 2, 2018
On Monday, Lizzy and some of her classmates held a silent protest in support of “the destigmatization of natural bodies.” Despite threats of disciplinary action, about 30 female students opted not to wear bras, and a number of students decorated their backpacks with Band-Aids in the shape of an X. One student wore a shirt that read, “Do my ni**ples offend you?” (The asterisks were hers.)
In the U.S., more than half of public schools have dress codes. Students are beginning to push back on ones they deem discriminatory, challenging rules against buzz cuts, shirtdresses and hair extensions. In 2014, a group of New Jersey high school students created #iammorethanadistraction to push back against their dress code and four years later, it continues to be an active hashtag. Change.org lists over 500 dress code petitions in their database.
Sometimes the rules are overturned.
In March 2017, for example, Mya and Deanna Cook, two 15-year-old students in the Boston area, were barred from the prom, taken out of extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension if they wouldn’t remove their braided hair extensions. The Massachusetts attorney general ordered the school to reverse their policy. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently litigating a case against a North Carolina-based public charter school that requires girls to wear skirts to school.
Meredith Harbach, a University of Richmond law professor whose 2016 paper explored sexualization and public school dress codes, said the problem arises when schools impose gender-specific requirements based on sex stereotypes.
In the case of Lizzy, for example, the school is “foisting this notion that unrestrained breasts are sexual and likely to cause disruption and distract other students,” Harbach said. But this kind of messaging that targets young women — your skirt is too short, you look too sexy, you’re distracting the boys — “deflects any and all conversation about appropriate mutually respectful behavior in schools between boys and girls,” she said.
“Who is disrupted actually? It’s Lizzy. Whose learning experience is impacted?” Harbach said. “It doesn’t sound like other kids had a major disruption, but she sure did.”
Victoria Schantz, 17, a senior at Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has been battling her school dress code since she was in the third grade and a teacher told her that her running shorts were too short. “I didn’t see my body as a sexual thing at that age and they were making it into one,” Schantz said in a phone interview.
In the seventh grade, Schantz was sent to an administrator’s office for wearing a pair of leggings. In the tenth grade, a male teacher pulled Schantz out of class because her baggy shirt slipped off her shoulder.
This year, she had enough. Schantz and 10 other members of the school’s student-led Women’s Rights and Empowerment Club created an online petition which received 3,000 signatures, and then they took turns attending school board meetings and speaking about their experiences. Recently, the school board ruled in their favor: Leggings, tank tops and yoga pants will be allowed in the coming school year.
“It’s not clear whether the rise we’re seeing in advocacy around the issue of dress code is because schools are imposing them in more discriminatory ways now than they were before, or whether more students are feeling empowered to speak up and complain about discriminatory dress codes,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU. “But we do definitely see that more students are speaking up.”
Her personal suspicion: “This is part of the sea change we’re seeing nationwide in speaking up and challenging discriminatory treatment based on sex in all different areas of life.”