Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINIONSocietyFebruary 25, 2021

My body is not the problem – my school’s obsession with ‘modesty’ is

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Nevada Wolfgramm, a year 13 student at Mount Aspiring College in Wānaka, has been repeatedly censured by the school for breaching its dress code, told by teachers that what she’s wearing is distracting boys and male teachers. Here, she explains why it must stop. 

The first time I was “dress coded” was last year, when I was in year 12. It was in art class, where I spent three periods each day. A teacher came into our class and made a snarky comment, then confronted me in front of everyone. I ran out of class sobbing and went straight home. Art class had been, until then, my safe space at school. I was wearing a crop top that revealed an inch or two of my midriff.

I came away from that experience feeling embarrassed, uncomfortable and confused. The written dress code at the time said nothing about singlets, strappy tops or crop tops, only that my mufti had to be appropriate for a professional work environment. I had a meeting with the teacher who had called me out and I explained to her how this made me feel. She apologised, and we all came away from that meeting with a new understanding. I thought this would be the last I would hear of inappropriate dress code requirements, but oh how wrong I was. 

The school board has just come back with a new and “improved” dress code for the mufti wearers of our school for 2021 (year 13 and year 12), changing our dress code from casual guidelines to completely banning brief shorts, shabby or worn out jeans, see-through, low-cut, halter, thin-strapped tops on dresses or as separates, or revealing a bare midriff. Singlets “with gaping arm holes” are also banned. These are just a few of the new requirements that I’m wondering why on earth are necessary. 

Two weeks into the new school year and I’ve already been spoken to by my whānau teacher about my clothing. This is a man who I’ve spent almost every weekday morning with since my first day of school five years ago, and he has been appointed to the uncomfortable role of speaking to me when other teachers report that I have inappropriate dress on. This conversation was awkward and made both of us visibly uncomfortable. 

These other teachers (mostly female) claim they’re doing this for my own good. One of the reasons given to students who are dress coded is that their clothing will distract the male teachers and the boys in the class. They are concerned, they say, for my modesty. 

I spent some time thinking about this word “modesty”, and what first comes to mind is the pressure put on women to “behave”. It creates a stigma around a woman’s body where they are more desirable than men and that is why they should cover up – so as not to distract men or come off as “slutty” or like they’re “asking for it”. 

Modesty seems, at least according to one webpage I found that listed “10 reasons to dress modestly”, to start with Christianity. Mount Aspiring College is not a religious school, so why are we pressing modesty that stems mainly from a religious ideology onto students? Why must I dress modestly to appease a lord I have no interest in appeasing? 

Modesty, apparently, can protect you, and yet not getting raped should not be the victim’s responsibility. That is 100% on the rapist – it doesn’t matter what the victim is wearing or what they look like.

Modesty supposedly sets a good example for others. I don’t think so. I think it teaches young females that they should cover their body as it is too desirable and dangerous, and could put their safety at risk.

Modesty is what gets women respect. What? By this rationale it is up to us as women to cover up because if we don’t, we don’t get shown respect. Men “by nature” might fantasise about us, which is somehow our fault? And our partners may be unloyal if there are “scantily” dressed women around them. 

To me, none of this sounds like the woman’s fault – it sounds like men can’t control themselves and honestly, that’s just embarrassing. For the men as well. If men or women such as my teachers or my classmates feel insecure or uncomfortable with seeing my shoulders, thighs, chest or stomach, then that is 100% their fault. I cannot control how other people feel about me, and I most definitely cannot control the fact that I have all these normal body parts. 

It is not me sexualising my body, it is the other people who see it that way. If those people are teachers then that is very inappropriate – and definitely not behaviour for an educational setting or any workplace. 

If it is the other students in my class, then maybe school is a good place to teach them about not shaming other people’s bodies. I’m missing out on other things I could be learning while I’m learning that my body is a problem for them. I want my school to be a place for education, not a place I go to be shamed. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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