Saturday, January 31, 2015

What the Hell Is It with Utah High Schools and Shoulders?

When Curmie took a Costume Design course forty years or so ago, he read an already iconic short treatise by James Laver entitled “The Shifting Erogenous Zone.” The idea was that each era creates a new site for our prurient gaze, with fashion choices (the bustle, the miniskirt, etc.) simultaneously catalyzing and underscoring that change in popular perception. In terms of how this concept plays out in the fashion choices of today’s young women, most of us have pretty well acknowledged the shift of attention from the breasts and midriffs of only a few years ago to the yoga pants-clad backsides of today. That’s because most of us don’t live in Utah, where the source of all adolescent male lasciviousness is girls’ shoulders. Yes, shoulders.

Last year, the idiots in charge of Wasatch High School copped a Curmie nomination for Photoshopping yearbook pictures of high school girls without as much as informing them they were doing so. As Curmie wrote last August:
…a lot of girls’ photos were altered by the administration, probably illegally and certainly unethically. Equally importantly, a fair number of photos showing precisely the same kind of clothing weren’t altered. What that means, if nothing else, is that a lot of girls violated the policy as it could be interpreted by voyeuristic idiots like Wasatch County School District superintendent Terry E. Shoemaker. Seriously, if the examples that have been made available to the public are anything to go by—if they are even accurate but isolated examples—then the problem isn’t with the girls, it’s with the drooling middle-aged men like Shoemaker who get turned on a little too easily by the sight of a little adolescent skin….

….what got the old boys’ hearts a-palpitating wasn’t cleavage (there’s only the slightest hint of that in any of the allegedly offending photos) or a tattoo; it wasn’t a bare midriff or the glimpse of an undergarment… it was <gasp> shoulders. Yes, shoulders. That’s what got awkwardly covered up by the censorious asshats who dropped out of the Photoshop workshop after the first lesson and couldn’t even make their absurd editing look competent.
This year, we get a variation on the theme of perceived shoulderly sensuousness at Lone Peak High School, about 45 minutes’ drive to the southwest of Wasatch.

This dress is just a little too risqué
for the good folks at Lone Peak High School. 
I mean… shoulders!!!

There, 15-year-old student Gabi Finlayson was humiliated by being made to wear a coat over the beautiful dress she had chosen to wear to the Preference Dance earlier this month. The dance, by the way, seems to be a major event in the school’s social calendar, and the dress had been purchased for precisely this occasion on a family trip to Paris. The offense? It’s those damned sexy shoulders again.

Curmie need hardly point out that the Principal in the case, one Rhonda Bromley, makes an utter fool of herself in several discrete ways:

First, there’s the all-too-predictable whining to the press that students knew the rules, which of course were shipped via FedEx directly from Mount Sinai and accompanied by an autographed 8”x10” color glossy photograph of Moses himself. Gentle Reader, that’s a photo of the allegedly offending dress a little higher up this page. No serious person of the 21st century thinks there’s anything wrong with it; anyone with decent eyesight and an IQ above room temperature would be proud of a daughter, a niece, a student, who selected that dress for the dance. It’s well-styled and conservative, and Ms. Finlayson looks great in it. Indeed, anyone who suggests any impropriety on her part has the brains of a speed bump and is fit for no other career than high school principal (or, to be fair, state legislator); the apprentice fry cook at Big Bubba’s Burger Barn has to meet higher intellectual standards.

Second, there’s the hollow protestation that “students were not embarrassed when their dresses were deemed inappropriate.” There is a single-word response to this claim, one that is redolent of bovine feces. Of course teenaged girls were being quite intentionally humiliated for insufficient frumpiness. I said in the previous paragraph that young Gabi looked great. Alas, that seems to have been precisely the problem.

Next, we might notice the text of the policy itself: “Formals, backless dresses and/or tops may not extend beyond the bottom of the shoulder blades. Girls’ dresses and tops must have a 2″ minimum strap on each shoulder. Shawls, boleros and other shrugs are acceptable if worn over the dress at all times. Cleavage covered.” Um… don’t look now, but that dress sure looks to me like it very well might meet even those ridiculous standards. Because there’s no cleavage visible at all, and those straps sure do look to be pretty damned close to 2”. You’d certainly need a personal grudge and a micrometer to argue otherwise. Gabi says her dress is compliant, and I see no reason to dispute her claim. Nor does anyone at the school rebut her observation that “There were a lot of dresses that were very short, very tight, a lot more exposing or revealing than mine.”

Finally, there’s the whole matter of why such a stupidly restrictive policy exists to begin with. Gabi’s mom, Kristi Kimball, wonders, “How have we gotten to the point that we look at shoulders as if they're somehow pornographic? As if they are this shameful thing?”. That’s a really good question, Ms. Kimball. The answer certainly has something to do with an administration too stolid, too craven, and/or too imperious to stand up to the puritanical and ragingly sexist demands of a community that hasn’t yet decided whether “Father Knows Best” meets their standards of decency.

The school unquestionably (and unquestioningly) seeks to define male irresponsibility as an inevitable derivative of female allure. Remember the kerfuffle at Wasatch last year, when sleeves were inexpertly Photoshopped onto girls’ photos, but the same yearbook included shots of open-shirted boys with cutlines like “studs doing what studs do best”? Curmie is not normally a slippery-slope kind of guy, but this hypermasculinist phenomenon really is only a couple steps away from “I’m sorry I punched you in the face, but you know I don’t like my underwear folded that way.”

None of this is intended to suggest that girls are always innocent victims. Some of them do indeed dress or behave inappropriately for the occasion, and some reasonable standards of propriety do not come amiss. But this girl on this occasion doesn’t come close to crossing that line. School officials are terrified of adolescent sexuality, and in their tiny minds, it’s not occasionally, but always the girl’s fault. Boys can’t be expected to control their primal urges when glimpsing… you know… (whisper) shoulders, after all.

Gabi herself is right, if perhaps reductive: “Maybe instead of teaching girls they should cover themselves up, we should be teaching boys that we’re not just sex objects that you can look at and derive pleasure.” Curmie suspects that the real problem here, as far as the school was concerned, is that one of their students could think, let alone articulate, such a thing. They couldn’t allow one of theirs to enter that scary new (i.e. 15-year-old) millennium, and they felt an overwhelming desire to humiliate her publicly… she needed to be taught a lesson, after all.

So, let’s review the bidding, shall we? There’s a stupid dress code which exists primarily to blame adolescent male hormonal overload on girls, thereby insulting boys and condescending to girls, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…. The policy was then enforced inconsistently and indeed capriciously. Teenaged girls were quite blatantly shamed in front of their friends: the only question is whether this was intentional (probably), or whether the school officials in question are simply stupider than snake spit and couldn’t predict the inevitable outcome of their actions (conceivably). Oh, and despite the fact that the dress code seems to have been written in 1962 by middle-aged cloistered nuns with insufficient dietary fiber, the dress was compliant, anyway, just as many of the outfits shown in the original, undoctored, photographs submitted to the Wasatch yearbook last year were clearly dress-code complaint. (And just as yet another Utah teenager was almost certainly compliant in Tooele the first time Curmie wrote about stupidly-enforced dress codes in Utah.)

I suspect Curmie will have to speak reeeeeeeeeeally slowly to Principal Bromley about this, as she seems to be a little slow on the uptake, but even if you’re going to have a repressive dress code, you’re still only allowed to enforce its provisions, not whatever your most prudish employee decides the standards ought to be.

Gabi looked marvelous. You look moronic.

The good news is that I promise not to complain about what you choose to wear to accept your quite likely Curmie nomination.

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