Sexism: A Call for Accountability

%E2%80%9CThere%E2%80%99s+this+whole+societal+construct+that+women+have+to+dress+a+certain+way+to+be+respected.+And+then+when+people+buy+into+that%2C+not+only+is+it+making+it+more+a+thing+than+it+ever+was%E2%80%A6+it%E2%80%99s+calling+more+attention+to+it%2C%E2%80%9D+junior+Maggie+Crimmins+said.

Megan Snyder

“There’s this whole societal construct that women have to dress a certain way to be respected. And then when people buy into that, not only is it making it more a thing than it ever was… it’s calling more attention to it,” junior Maggie Crimmins said.

By Anna Waldron and Lucy MacNeela

This article contains explicit language and potentially triggering content related to sexual harassment. 

Many people may define the moment you begin to mature as a woman as the day you start high school, or the day you get your first period. However, this moment often occurs when you realize some of the men who once viewed you as a little girl now see you as nothing more than a sexual object. 

In our opinion, uncertainty is the scariest part. Never knowing if a male stranger could be a protector or a predator. 

The sad truth is that women can find comfort in knowing that a significant amount of other women feel that same fear

To highlight some female voices and allow a few La Salle students to present their opinions surrounding sexism, we interviewed five different women at La Salle. All of them expressed feelings that some sort of gender inequality or discrimination still remains in the school community, as well as the world beyond La Salle.

Sophomore Rachel Yaskovic voiced her opinion about sexism at La Salle, saying that she sees the most inequality between men and women at school in La Salle’s student dress code. “I experience [sexism] most at school,” she said. 

Although the administration has made efforts to create a more lenient dress code, some students still feel unhappy with the expectations for girls in comparison to boys. Yaskovic expressed her dissatisfaction with the current rules surrounding clothes, saying that she felt the expectations to which she and other La Salle students are held force them to suppress their personal style, their personalities, and the way that they want to present themselves. “I personally think that the dress code at La Salle is disgusting and I do not agree with it whatsoever,” Yaskovic said. “I feel like if you want to express how you want to dress, you’re allowed to do that.”

This year, Falcon Friday attire is now allowed every day, something that was previously only allowed on Fridays. Students are now permitted to wear sweatpants, pajama pants, and leggings throughout the entire week. The dress code was also altered to reflect a new skirt length guideline, which used to only allow two inches above the knee to show, but now allows skirts and dresses to fall at the end of a student’s fingertips when their arms are down to their side. 

“At the beginning of this year we had the assembly about the dress code, and then they said they had changed things,” senior Kayla Erving said. From Erving’s perspective, “they only really accommodated the guys, not the girls.”

Even though this year the administration has instituted a more casual dress code, many female students feel that the rules still seem to heavily affect their ability to dress freely or in a way that feels comfortable for them. “The dress code kind of revolves around rules that only affect girls,” junior Maggie Crimmins said. “It’s all just because society has decided that women have to cover themselves — that’s how I see sexism.”

During the first week back to school, Ms. Kathleen Coughran, Vice Principal of Academics, and Mr. Brian Devine, Vice Principal of Student Life, led an all-school assembly addressing some of the changes in La Salle’s dress code. 

Although some minor changes were made, for us and many others, it felt like a false sense of hope for a more understanding dress code. Skirt length requirements were slightly adjusted, but items like cropped tops, tank tops, and more conventionally-feminine styles were not accommodated. A quick trip to the mall makes it clear that most clothing companies or stores popular among teenagers do not carry “school-appropriate tops” for girls, creating another stressor in many women’s lives. 

“The purpose of the dress code is really to define an academic purpose for school,” Mr. Devine said. “It’s a recognition that the way you dress is based on the purpose of the occasion or the purpose of the event. So how you dress on the weekends or how you dress to hang out with friends might look different than how you dress to come to school.”

Part of learning and adapting is analyzing why things are the way they are. Why does society see short skirts and cleavage as attention-seeking, and why do we align what clothes girls are wearing with their motives for being at school? The bottom line is that they’re not related, and it is due to the internalized misogyny that is rooted in our minds, that we often fail to separate the two. 

Why is it inappropriate to feel comfortable in what you’re wearing? Why is it inappropriate to dress how you like, no matter the setting?

We believe that a significant part of this is rooted in long-imposed guidelines in private schools. “I think if you were to attend most private schools, you would encounter some kind of dress code there,” Mr. Devine said.

It’s never a good feeling to be told that what you’re wearing is not okay. Even if the intention of the person saying this is not malicious, it feels like what they’re really saying is, “You are inappropriate,” or “Your body is not okay.” 

Like many other girls, being dress-coded by anyone, no matter the level of authority, makes us feel like there is something wrong with us. We can’t help but wonder, what is so inappropriate about women’s bodies? What about our shoulders or collarbones is so distracting that an adult needs to tell us to change?

Mr. Devine has acknowledged that the school has worked to make changes in how the dress code policy is enforced. “One of the things that we’ve really tried to focus on is… the language you use to respond to that. So rather than saying, ‘your shirt is inappropriate’ or ‘your skirt is too short,’ just kind of stating that, ‘the skirt you’re wearing doesn’t meet our dress code,” Mr. Devine said. “So, we’ve really tried to make it about the clothing and not about the student or about the part of their body that is visible.” 

The administration has also worked hard to approach situations regarding the dress code using genderless language. By taking the gender terms out of the dress code policy, it better acknowledges and represents La Salle’s non-binary and transgender students, and doesn’t directly single out female-identifying students. “We have really been intentional and thoughtful about how gender plays into the dress code and try to minimize the impact of that,” Mr. Devine said.

This effort is appreciated. This change in verbiage does help with the delivery of uncomfortable conversations, but it doesn’t solve everything. 

One issue is that sexism is still very prominent within the student body, with some students spreading words of discrimination and misogyny.

“At school, there’s been times where I’ve felt unsafe because I know that people at the school have slut shamed me, and slut shamed other girls and it makes me uncomfortable to be in the presence of someone like that,” Erving said.

Being at school with male peers who have allegedly harassed women makes walking through the hallways feel different. School doesn’t feel as safe knowing there are boys in my classes who have allegedly manipulated and harassed girls that I go to school with. 

A nationally representative 2011 survey from the American Association of University Women found that slut shaming is one of the most common forms of sexual harassment that students in middle and high school face. A third of all students experienced “having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you in person; 46% of girls experienced it and 22% of boys.” 

Slut shaming can sometimes imply that girls are at fault for what they wear, and can control whether or not they receive shaming comments or harassment based on how much skin they show. 

According to a Marshall University article, “rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” 

The administration has no intentions of perpetuating rape culture or degrading women, but the dress code guidelines indirectly show how the treatment of women in schools can relate to it.

Associating the way that young women dress and present themselves to their intentions or level of “professionalism” places blame onto the individual instead of society’s skewed view on the way a woman should look, an idea rooted in rape culture. 

Rape culture is not strictly related to sexual violence, but it demonstrates how women are taught that their existing body is inappropriate, and therefore, men are allowed to sexualize them. 

These ideas are something that Mr. Devine actively works against. 

“We don’t want it to feel like students are being responded to because they’re a distraction or because what they’re wearing…has any sexual connotation or anything like that,” Mr. Devine said. “So that’s why that comes back to the purpose as well. That’s why we talked about the purpose of a dress code is so that students understand how to dress for an  academic reason, it’s not because we’re worried that they’re going to be a distraction in class.”

Although we appreciate the changes in dress code, we feel that it still does more harm than good, especially for young women exploring their identities and learning to accept their bodies in a world that is so unaccepting. Therefore, we believe that the most effective solution is to eliminate the dress code completely. 

Inadvertently, comments about objectifying women’s bodies only further negative stereotypes and expectations of women and the way that they dress, and also work to create an uncomfortable atmosphere for female students that can compromise both safety and mental health.

This sexualization and stigma around women’s bodies have contributed to the decline in women’s mental health such as body image issues, anxiety, shame, and depression.

A lot of these issues stem from social media standards and the comparison of women’s bodies online. 

Yaskovic expressed that social media and how female bodies are compared to one another have an effect on the way women perceive themselves. “If you look in the mirror you would usually degrade yourself… And I feel like that kind of ties back into social media and how we’re forced to believe that we’re not as good as somebody else just because of how they look, and that can really affect how you view yourself,” she said. 

This is something that many women, especially young women, face. It is rooted in the notion that a woman’s value is most heavily determined by their physical appearance, and they are expected to uphold these standards. 

“I feel like when people have expectations you feel like you have to fit those expectations,” Crimmins said. 

These standards in place only breed negativity and body image issues. Many teenage girls feel inadequate compared to the models and unrealistic standards to which society holds them. 

Erving expressed that although she feels social media can uplift people, it can also be a breeding ground for slut shaming. Although some people do feel that social media has helped to normalize female body confidence and helped to spread awareness about issues regarding sexism, it can also be an extremely negative place.   

On the internet, people can make degrading and inappropriate comments without ever having to own up to their actions, due to the ability to remain anonymous. “I think social media has helped in some ways just to spread awareness and help educate people about sexism, but it has also sexualized women’s bodies more,” sophomore Stella Gibbons said. 

The internet provides a mask to those who aim to tear someone down or make a misogynistic comment because they never have to accept accountability due to the internet’s anonymity.

We are real people with feelings and insecurities that should not be picked apart, no matter what age or setting. 

Derogatory language has only become more common on social media apps. Erving spoke about comments on her posts using language like “whore” and “slut,” — words that are extremely sexist and damaging. What people post and talk about on social media can travel into school settings, leaving women uncomfortable during class because they have been targeted by someone they know online. It can make people uncomfortable to know that men are making sexist comments in or outside of the classroom. 

A poll conducted by Pew Research Center in 2017 found that 35% of women who have experienced online harassment say that these comments have caused them some form of stress or sadness. However, only 16% of men feel the same. The same study found that 21% of women ages 18 to 29 have been sexually harassed online, compared to only 9% of men the same age. 

We feel that a lot of the fear and stress women experience is because they are concerned about their safety.  

When women walk out to their cars at night, we have to be cautious of where we are and who we are around, making sure to immediately lock the doors when we sit down. Many of us pull our skirts down and pull our shirts up when we walk out onto the street because we’ve been catcalled too many times to not take these precautions. 

We actively avoid eye contact with any men in sight, in fear that if we look up, they will follow us to our cars, harass us with comments about our looks, or potentially, do something even worse.

As many other girls our age do, we carry personal alarms on our keys as a safety precaution to ensure our well-being.

Threatening comments and inappropriate words and actions can happen everywhere, even by strangers at a place as safe as our school. For example, senior Gracelyn Rael had an on-campus experience with this: “I was coming in, walking into school and this guy in the parking lot stopped, who wasn’t even a student, and he asked me for my number and was telling me how cute I looked,” Rael said.

When it comes to issues of safety or sexual harassment, the question, ‘Well, what was she wearing?’ is often asked, and because of this, many students feel that they have to dress more masculine in order to go outside at night. “I almost dress myself as a guy if I’m walking late at night, like masculine,” Erving said. “I put my hair up, I put my hood on, baggier clothes than I would usually wear so that way it makes me feel safer.” 

Not only do these threats and sexist comments promote fear and precaution, but they also often result in insecurity and distress. “School is supposed to be a place where you feel safe, and where you feel like you won’t be harmed by anyone,” Rael said. “When I’m out in the street, and I’m walking around, I have older men commenting on the way I look and it makes me feel unsafe, so when I go to school, I want to feel safe. So I’ll wear the clothes I would normally wear going out, and I’m supposed to feel better about myself, but instead, I get dress-coded.” 

The five women interviewed have also felt a level of gender inequality in sports. 

Gibbons, who plays on the girls varsity soccer team, spoke about the differences in the crowd turnout at games. “Our game happens earlier in the morning than the boys games, so it’s just automatically less accessible,” she said. As a result, supporters are less likely or able to show up when the game is earlier in the morning. 

During the boys state championship this year, two current male students and three recent male La Salle graduates took their shirts off and spelled a player’s name on their chest, which sparked some conversation among some members of the La Salle community. “The focus is so different on what women do in sports compared to what guys do,” Gibbons said.  “Guys take their shirts off and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, they’re just showing their support,’ but anything that girls do is sort of read into more and it’s not just what they’re doing, it’s what they mean behind that, and it’s not just their achievements,” Gibbons said. 

Although they were told by Mr. Chris George, La Salle’s athletic director, to put their shirts back on, the photo was still posted to the official La Salle Prep Instagram, which in a way condones it. The school’s promotion of this behavior is frustrating because boys are allowed to go against the dress code and still be promoted on the school’s account.

This was not the first time this has happened either. At a boys basketball game last year multiple senior boys did the same thing, spelling a player’s name across their bare chests while on the La Salle campus. It was then posted to the official La Salle Instagram story. 

There’s nothing wrong with showing school spirit or supporting players, but we believe these displays definitely would not have been tolerated, had the gender roles in the situation been reversed. 

Even with all of these double standards, we have to recognize that awareness of sexism has improved nationally. “There’s definitely more social awareness,” Erving said. This is due to the increased amount of conversation about catcalling, signs of abuse, and sexualization of teen girls. 

Although the daunting topic of sexism can feel impossible to overcome or eliminate, there are ways for the La Salle administration to improve the issues surrounding gender inequality at school.  

Implementing more awareness and offering support to students who face mental health struggles from sexism-related issues in La Salle classrooms are essential parts of developing a more gender-conscious environment. 

Fostering a safe environment in classrooms where students can feel comfortable sharing their firsthand experiences with sexism is crucial in fulfilling the Lasallian virtues and ending this perpetuation of negative, sexist stereotypes. 

Rael believes students would benefit “if we could have just more resources for people who have been assaulted or abused, just to be able to talk about that more, and have it more brought to the attention of staff more,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who have suffered from that and La Salle doesn’t really realize that.”

This doesn’t all fall onto the administration. Students must be willing to learn and listen to their female peers to construct helpful learning environments and end this circulation of slut-shaming and negative stereotypes. They must be respectful and supportive of women’s stories in order for change to ensue. 

One example of La Salle’s improvement is the “I See Her, I Hear Her, I Believe Her” exhibit which is being displayed in room 138 by the Students Against Sexual Assult (SASA) club as a tribute to the stories of women that we have failed to celebrate and acknowledge.

Having more opportunities like this for education and conversations regarding sexism and the gender disparities regarding sports, safety, mental health, media, dress code, and more is something that La Salle’s administration is encouraging of.

“I think it is something that needs attention and, and like any of these conversations, it’s probably going to be a little bit uncomfortable — and I think that that’s a good thing because from discomfort and from tension, that’s where growth comes, that’s where change comes,” Mr. Devine said. “I’m hearing from a lot of students and I’m seeing myself that there are definitely things that need to change at La Salle and need to improve and grow.”

Acknowledging the room for growth that exists within both the La Salle community and society as a whole is the only way to further conversations about gender equity in all spaces and environments.

There is a lot of change to be made, but the administration is willing to listen, so raise your voice.

This story was originally published on The La Salle Falconer on March 30, 2022.