‘Shoulder-shaming’ girls at Utah high school: Why the big coverup?

Officials at a Utah high school added Photoshopped clothing to cover bare clavicles and shoulders in the yearbook photos of at least seven girls, bringing tears and charges of misogyny.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16, points to her tattoo Thursday, in Heber City, in Utah. She and her classmates said they were shocked and upset to discover their school yearbook photos were digitally altered, with sleeves and higher necklines drawn on to cover up bare skin.

The decision by administrators at Wasatch High School in Utah to add Photoshopped clothing to cover bare clavicles and shoulders in the yearbook photos of at least seven girls is at least in part a story about how rapidly changing mores around dress, sexuality, and body adornment are confounding US school officials.

To be sure, the decision to alter the pictures has put the school in the spotlight for what some critics have called “shoulder-shaming” and misogyny, especially since no male pictures were altered. Photos of student athletes and cheerleaders that showed more than the permitted amount of skin also were not altered.

One girl cried during a television interview because the school added a shirt top to downplay her clavicles, which also covered up part of a tattoo that reads, “I am enough the way I am.”

On Friday, school officials declined to apologize for the Photoshopping, saying there were signs on picture day warning students that it could happen if they didn’t obey the dress code. School officials did say they’ll review the policy, acknowledging it was not evenly applied throughout the 2014 yearbook. (Most schools offer a make-up picture day for students who come to school dressed inappropriately.)

That non-apology has drawn widespread criticism from parents, students and women’s rights activists, who note that the school officials’ decision fits into what they see as a broader pattern of misogyny. The story broke after commentators spent a week discussing the Isla Vista, Calif., killings in which a troubled young man, Elliot Rodger, spouted angry denunciations of women in a disturbing YouTube video preceding the college-town stabbings and shootings, in which two women and four men died.

At the same time, the incident highlights the growing quandary that many school officials face as trends in body adornment and dress grow increasingly risqué and distracting.

“There’s a tremendous amount of confusion in public schools these days about dress and appearance, because the social norms have changed so dramatically that tattoos and strange body piercings and other forms of personal expression, many of which were once reserved for sailors and convicts, are now proliferating and displayed prominently by high school students through social media,” says Roy Peter Clark, a long-time faculty member at the Poynter Institute of Media Studies, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

School officials have to deal also with whether wearing particular colors, logos, or symbols labels you as a gang member, or confers religious or political affiliations.

That dilemma may have been magnified at Wasatch High School, which anchors a town in which about two-thirds of the population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church. The church encourages members to dress modestly, and instructs women to cover bare shoulders and avoid short skirts and short-shorts.

More recently, the church has begun to focus more on the modesty requirements in girls’ dress, in part in response to images in popular culture that glorify body adornment and sexuality.

That sensitivity is reflected in the Wasatch School District dress code, which refers to “modesty” twice as it points out that clothing must cover shoulders, midriff, back, underwear, and cleavage “at all times.”

Critics, however, argued that the original photographs were hardly tasteless, and reflected the girls’ appropriate aesthetic.

“Necklines were raised up, sleeves were added, and tank top straps were thickened to not only show less skin but also totally ruin a poor girl's meticulously planned outfit,” writes Jenna Mullins, on E! Online. “For example, one girl's adorable flowered tank top suddenly grew a shirt underneath it. Who wears a shirt under a top like that?! After the 1990's, we mean.”

For the student journalists who put together the yearbook at Wasatch High, the pressure from administration to alter the photos forced them into an “ethical breach,” says Ron Johnson, director of student media at Indiana University and a board member at the National Student Press Association (NSPA).

“There are community standards, which are important and understandable, and also put pressure on administrators, but censoring and manipulating is never the answer to respond to those standards,” says Mr. Johnson.

“Unfortunately a lot of school administrators see the yearbook as more of a public relations tool, to show the school the way the way they would like it to be seen, not the way it actually is,” says Peter Bobkowski, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, and also an NSPA board member.

“The fact is, in high school, portraits are still a very huge deal, they’re an end of the year highlight, and it’s part of a rich historical record,” says Johnson, at Indiana University. This incident  “just really spoils a great event for the students and also for the yearbook staff that spent months working on this as a journalistic enterprise only to have it all spoiled.”

Wasatch High School sophomore Rachel Russell, whose picture was altered, agreed, in an interview with the Associated Press.

"When I show my grandchildren, I'm gonna be like, 'Yeah, I went to a high school where we weren't allowed to be who we were,’ ” she said.

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