In May 2021, Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County, Florida edited around 80 female students' yearbook photos by covering up their chest area. According to the school district, girls' yearbook photos must follow dress code guidelines and they deemed the said pictures inappropriate. But in an interesting twist of events, the boys' pictures from the swim team and other sports photos were left unedited. This incident caused quite a backlash. I interviewed Eliza VanCort about this issue, how it should be dealt with and how women can support each other.
Q 1. So to begin with, what sparked your interest in this particular issue?
Eliza: Well, I'm a feminist who writes about female empowerment, but I'm also a mom. My daughter was really opposed to her dress code in high school. She thought it was sexist on the surface, and racist in the way it was implemented. And that's how it all began.
Q 2. Congratulations on your new book by the way. For those who haven't read it, would you like to elaborate on what it's about?
Eliza: Thanks! I'm really excited about it!
The book is a guidebook for claiming space, that is living your life unapologetically and bravely. Women are taught to make themselves small in many aspects of their lives. I wanted a book which would give them concrete advice on how to step into their power.
I break down this process into five steps in my book-
- Claim space with your physicality and voice.
- Claim space collaboratively.
- Identify and neutralize those messages that might cause us to cede our space.
- Shut down those who would violate our space.
- Finally, claim space in an inclusive and intersectional manner. You can't just claim space for yourself and people who look like you. That's not claiming space. That's contributing to systems of oppression, and unfortunately white feminism has a long and shameful history of doing just that.
Q 3. The recent scandal over photoshopping the yearbook photos of these young women is disgusting, but far from the first sexist move from a school. Why does it persist today despite the strides we've made in women's rights?
Eliza: Slut shaming has always been a time-honored strategy to shut women up, shut women down, and keep them in line. Body shaming is a time-honored way of diminishing female confidence, pitting women against each other, and making them feel that they get their social capital not from their deeds, but from their appearance.
These two types of shaming are very tough to dismantle, and together they are a powerful cocktail of oppression. Until women are educated about the roots of these types of control mechanisms, this will keep happening.
Photoshopping yearbook photos is not the cause of problems, it's a perpetuation of issues that women face every day. This case was egregious enough to open up larger conversations, which is fantastic. I would also add that this type of thing puts the onus upon women to cover up in order to keep men from being distracted by their bodies. We can also draw a straight line from this type of thinking and rape culture.
Q 4. As a specialist in communications and female empowerment, how would you advise young women to claim space for themselves in school?
Eliza: Young women should stand up for each other and interrupt moments of slut/body shaming. Including women who cut down other women for any aspect of their appearance.
Speak out. Tell your stories on social media. And most importantly, organize. There is power in numbers. One person complaining is an annoying outlier who is easily dismissed. A school full of women who work collectively to disrupt sexism, racism and other isms is a school that has no choice but to transform.
Q 5. How do these kinds of obstacles for young women fit into the wider picture of women's rights?
Eliza: Until women's bodies are not judged, picked apart, shamed, blamed and objectified, women are going to have a hell of a time moving forward individually and collectively. Controlling a woman's body is one of the most powerful tools of oppression, from body shaming, policing their sexuality to rape culture. It's all connected, like a gigantic, suffocating tapestry. The good thing is, you pull out one string means you refuse to accept even one part of it. Then the entire oppressive system begins to unravel.
Q 6. These kinds of conversations can be difficult to have whether it is a parent, school counselor or student talking to a school administrator or teacher. How would you recommend approaching this kind of sensitive topic?
Eliza: I actually don't think it's that complicated if you are educated, so the key is to educate parents. My good friend Kim, who is a therapist and brilliant intersectional feminist, educated me, and it made all the difference. She saw my daughter Ella struggling years ago, when she was hitting puberty. She told me to have a conversation with Ella and directly instruct her about what happens to girls as they grow into women.
I spoke to Ella about how both boys and girls get their social capital from what they do, what they are good at. Puberty hits and that shifts for girls. Suddenly they get their capital from male attention. So, a transition from being rewarded for being good at math or great on the ball field to being pretty. This often causes girls to focus on their looks while dumbing themselves down. They shrink themselves to elevate boys.
After I talked to Ella, she was literally transformed. To be fair, it took her a few weeks to watch the dynamic at her school and see for herself, but once she saw it. That was the beginning of her emerging into the amazing young woman she is now.
Q 7. Many women across the country have been outraged reading about this piece but don't know what they can do to help these women or the cause. What would you recommend?
Eliza: Well, honestly they should read my book! The women who have read it have written to me from all over the country saying things like, "If every woman read this book our country would be transformed." But if you aren't big on reading or listening to books, find ways that work for you to educate yourself about sexism and then work to dismantle it. This sounds like a huge task, but actually it's a compilation of small tasks.
Sexism isn't one big thing you need to march in the streets about once a year, although it can be useful. Sexism is about a thousand moments when we give up our power, or we allow other women to be diminished. These moments are often insidious but subtle, and very hard to pin down. The first step in attacking these moments is to believe ourselves when we think something just doesn't feel right, and have the courage to step in. And to be clear, courage isn't a lack of fear. Courage is fear meeting action. And women are courageous. This is something they shouldn't forget.
Q 8. What kind of impact do you think this has on the confidence and identity of the young girls who go through this?
Eliza: Well in this case I think it was empowering because women stepped up, spoke out, and said, "Nope. Not this time." That's powerful. But when this type of thing usually happens, it's a modern scarlet letter of sorts. It sends a message to young women that they need to feel small and ashamed. It tells them to feel ashamed of their bodies, to fear owning their sexuality.
Shame a woman for having breasts and you are shaming her for who she is. There's a reason some responses on twitter were for the abusive character of 'Aunt Lydia' in The Handmaid's Tale. Aunt Lydia is the perfect cocktail of telling women to feel ashamed of their sexuality while also having men fully control their sexuality. These two things go hand in hand, and they are dangerous.
NOTE: THE VIEWS IN THE FOLLOWING ANSWER REFLECT THE OPINION OF THE INTERVIEWEE AND ARE NOT ENDORSED BY THE AUTHOR OR ODYSSEY.
Q 9. Movies and TV shows set in high school (Mean Girls, Easy A, Gossip Girl) usually sexualize these "high school girls" to a disturbing extent. How do you think this affects the dress code rules?
Eliza: I think we shouldn't worry so much about girls exploring their sexuality. Instead, I think we need to be focusing on telling girls to dress how they want, but only because they want to and not because they're trying to sexualize themselves to please a man."
At the same time, we need to teach men that women dressing sexily is not a green light for them to treat them like objects. So often we hear that girls need to dress differently because they are distracting boys. Really? This isn't about women dressing differently. This is about changing the way men respond to how women dress. My daughter's senior quote in high school was, "I want to apologize to all the boys who did not graduate because they were distracted by my shoulders." That just about sums up what I think!
Q 10. In a lot of dress code cases, we also see that some administrators are female. What's your perspective on women upholding these inane standards and going even further to inflict it on other young women?
Eliza: One or the most powerful tools of perpetuating injustice is to reward the oppressed group for contributing to their own oppression. We have done an excellent job at this when it comes to sexism.
It's not surprising that this happens, considering the rewards women get for being sexist towards .That being said, we need to check ourselves and each other when we find ourselves doing this. In the end, all genders lose when any one isn't experiencing an equal playing field.
Q 11. What role can parents play in this situation?
Eliza: They should be intersectional feminists, and raise their children through that lens. Full stop.
Q 12. Why is it essential that we address these issues that some would dismiss as just a way of enforcing school policies?
Eliza: Historically, the "We were just following the rules'' has been used to justify almost every form of oppression possible. This has resulted in immeasurable suffering and even death. It's a tired, ridiculous argument, one we have no time for.
If we never broke the rules Black people would still be enslaved and White women would be put in a scold's bridal (Google it!) when they spoke back to their husbands. Change comes from reevaluating rules that are unjust.
Q 13. If you could send a message to any of the young women that had their photos altered without their permission, what would you say?
Eliza: Learn from this. Learn what happens when this type of thing is not tolerated. Now go out, and do this for yourself and other women when you see injustice happening. And if you are White, this includes addressing issues that might not directly impact you, such as anti-Black violence. Until we start working together to dismantle all forms of oppression, all forms of oppression will continue to stand and increase.
Q 14. Should schools get rid of dress codes entirely, or should they just be implemented differently?
Eliza: Well, this brings up an entirely different issue. My shocking take is that I think dress codes are terrible, but uniforms aren't! I'm sure I'll get pushback for this, but in public schools so much social capital is determined by how expensive and trendy someone's clothes are. This keeps young people from being accepted simply because of their family's income levels.
I'm not exactly sure where I stand on this issue, as I think being able to express oneself through personal style is powerful. But shaming kinds who come from low-income backgrounds isn't acceptable. So yeah, that's a wrinkle for an entirely different, but important conversation!
Q 15. What resources would you recommend for those who want to learn more about these kinds of issues?
Eliza: I would recommend my book, "A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space."
In addition, I particularly like "Rage Becomes Her" by Soraya Chemaly and "No Visible Bruises" by Rachel Louise Snyder. I've also made a booklist with my nieces, who've been featured as action heroes in my book. It's a must read list for women wanting to step into their power. You can look it up here-
You can check out Eliza and her works here-
a) Eliza's Instagram Account:
b) Eliza's website:
c) Buy Eliza's book here: