The year was 2003 and super low-rise jeans were all the rage--indeed they are pretty much all that was available, making shopping all the more difficult for 9th grade pubescent teens stuck in the throes of awkward body changes. Nonetheless, that was what was available so that was what we wore--myself included.
The day started out ordinarily enough: I went to my first period class--photography--and began working on a project. At some point in the 40-minute class, a messenger from the main office entered the room and delivered to me an office slip bearing instructions that I go to the office of one of the administrators--I can't remember the name of the administrator but it was the same woman who once tried to convince me that "the" can be a noun (as much as I love grammar, this still makes no sense--anyone reading this who can explain, feel free to do so).
I went to the office, wondering what my crime could have been--the day had just begun so surely I couldn't be in trouble already, especially since I was not a student prone to getting into trouble (unless, of course, the administration makes a nonsense rule that students are no longer allowed to write on our hands, in which case I will go get a henna tattoo with the sole purpose of breaking the new rule). When I arrived at the office, the administrator--let's call her Ms. Didactic since I can't remember her actual name--looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain.
"Do you know why I called you in here?" Ms. Didactic asked.
"Uh... no?" I replied, confused.
"Your outfit breaks the dress code, and we can't have that in our school."
Despite never really getting into trouble, I found myself being busted for breaking the dress code fairly regularly. If it wasn't cap sleeves it was wearing flip flops or a purple moon and star headband (that's gang related, dontcha know). And here I stood, once again, in trouble for the dress code--a code I never once tried to violate. My adult self is full of frustrated eye rolls for my junior high self, and all the girls who still have to put up with this sexist trend that exists in schools.
"Um... how am I breaking the dress code?"
"Your pants are too low and your shirt is too high," Ms. Didactic answered.
I looked down at myself, examining what I was wearing. My favorite red t-shirt, capri blue jeans the bottoms of which I had cut into raggedy strips, and purple tights with darker purple abstract patterns. My style was on point.
"But... I'm just wearing jeans and a t-shirt," I said, still baffled.
She barked in annoyance, "I can see the top of your underwear!"
To be clear, my underwear was nowhere in sight. My purple tights were higher waisted than my pants, but you could barely notice the purple strip unless you looked super closely.
"This isn't my underwear, it's the top of my tights." My tone was one of cautious defiance riddled with doubt and shadowed accusation. How dare you insult the purple tights, my tone threatened.
"Nonetheless, you can't spend the day dressed like this. Here," and she handed me an oversized men's t-shirt, drenched in who knows what kind of sweat and germs borne of the doubtless numerous "indecent" girls who came before me.
"You must wear this over your shirt for the rest of the day and return it after school. Let me see you put it on." Ms. Didactic preened at her authority.
I took the shirt, feeling wretched and angry and embarrassed and focused on how dirty the ugly thing probably was. How often were these shame devices washed? Probably never--wearing someone else's sweat added to the shame and shame was certainly the intent.
Eventually, I acquiesced. I put the shirt on over my bright red. The baggy sleeves reached almost to my elbows, and the bottom hemline landed at mid-thigh. The ragged collar gaped open revealing a slice of my crimson shirt--an accidental memento of defiance.
Throughout the day I raged. I could sense the injustice but was not yet vocal or knowledgeable enough to make a fuss about it.
At some point during the day, I saw McCall Garrido, a fellow female student, across the commons area--also wearing a giant t-shirt of shame. We saw each other and raised our fists in greeting and solidarity. Not friends, McCall and I were momentarily brought together in sisterhood as we shared this absurd burden.
No male students were ever seen in the shame shirts.
Returning the shirt to administration is a blur in my memory--it probably dwells in the same hovel of memory as the real name of Ms. Didactic. What sticks with me all these years later is not a lesson on modesty and dressing appropriately for a given circumstance. No, what sticks with me is the attempt at shaming my body and style choices; the injustice of punishing me for the designs of current trends; the disgust of having to wear a dirty, ugly t-shirt; the complete absence of anything similar for the male students.
What I learned that day is this: Style is individual, but shame and sexism are broad and no woman is free of their sickening shadow.
So, thanks Ms. Didactic. I know you meant to shame me into submission to arbitrary modesty and style ideals, but instead you gave me a pointed lesson on the dangers of conformity and shame.
Long live the purple tights!