Utah high school alters ‘inappropriate’ yearbook photos of female students


Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16, points to yearbook proof, left, and her altered school yearbook photo, right. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Ever since the first lady broke the bare shoulder barrier by showing off her “post-Title IX arms” in sleeveless dresses on many high profile occasions, women have embraced the right to bare arms.

But it seems the sleeveless revolution has yet to reach students at Utah’s Wasatch High School, where female students’ yearbook photos were edited to conform with its dress code, which calls for “modesty.”

Sleeves were edited onto tank tops. Necklines were raised. Tattoos disappeared.

On Thursday, the school issued a statement saying a four-by-five foot sign warned students on picture day that “tank tops, low cut tops, inappropriate slogans on shirts, etc. would not be allowed” and that “photos may be edited to correct the violation.”

Wasatch School District’s dress code bans clothing that “does not conform to generally accepted community standards.” The school is located in Heber City, Utah, a small town of about 12,000, 40 miles east of Salt Lake City, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered.

Mormons encourage modesty. For women, that can mean covering shoulders and avoiding anything short, low-cut or clingy.

Female students said that none of the boys’ photos were edited and that girls’ photos were edited selectively, with some dress code violations left untouched, CNN reported.

Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16, points to her tattoo Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Heber City, in Utah. A group of Utah high school students, including Baum, 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. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“I feel like they’re shaming you, like you’re not enough, you’re not perfect,” sophomore Shelby Baum told the Associated Press on Thursday. Baum’s collarbone tattoo reading “I am enough the way I am” was removed from her photo. She also discovered a high, square neckline drawn onto her black V-neck T-shirt. Baum said she wants a refund or a new book with an unaltered photo.

“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,’” sophomore Rachel Russell, whose shirt grew sleeves in her yearbook picture, told the AP.

Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Utah, said in a statement that the altered photos are an example of a culture that shames girls and women. Female survivors of sexual violence “almost always blame themselves for wearing the wrong clothing or somehow encouraging men to rape them through their reckless behavior,” Mullen wrote. She added that the school’s behavior “reinforces a general theme in society that women must be controlled and directed, so as not to inflame male sexual appetites. It is the type of thinking that objectifies women and ultimately leads to sexual assault.”

Bobbi Jo Wilkerson-Westergard, Baum’s mother, told the Salt Lake Tribune that she accompanied her children for their photo sessions during registration last fall and did not see any sign. “There wasn’t anything there,” Wilkerson-Westergard said. “They could have told them that day, ‘You’re not following dress code.’ Then they could have changed clothes. They could have given other options than editing, which they didn’t learn about until the end of the year.”

The school acknowledged that yearbook staff “made some errors” and “were not consistent” in how the “graphic corrections” were applied to student photos. The school apologized and said it was evaluating its policy of altering photos.

Haylee Nielsen, a 15-year-old sophomore, told the AP that students who aren’t Mormon can feel like outsiders at the school, adding there is big focus on modesty. Ben Horsley, spokesperson for the Granite School District, one of the state’s largest, told the AP that most of of the district’s eight high schools also require covered shoulders.

However, Wilkerson-Westergard said it’s commonly understood among students that they can wear sleeveless tops as long as the straps are at least two or three inches wide. But there’s more going on here that conflicting messages about tank tops. The Wasatch dress code also bans articles of clothing that “cause an actual and/or perceived disruption of the educational environment or activities,” a prohibition open to interpretation that has sparked controversy in other school districts. Earlier this year, an Evanston, Illinois middle school’s ban on leggings led to student protests that drew national attention.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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