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first person

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That morning I was excited to go to school. I was free – on that day – to put together an outfit that really showcased who I was. Instead of wearing a bland uniform that made me look and feel like a proper grandmother, I could be creative.

It took me hours to find the perfect outfit. In the end, I slipped on a white graphic T-shirt that screamed Californian chic and the cutest yet most appropriate-for-school shorts I owned. Calf-high red, blue and yellow striped socks and white-as-snow Nikes completed the look. I felt like a whole new woman, ready to take on that hot May day. So why did my school tell me what I was wearing was a distraction? That my outfit was more important than my education?

Oozing with confidence, I walked up to those big metal doors. Just as I was about to yank them open and stride in like I owned the place, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a teacher. “Wow,” I thought, “She must like my outfit, this is so cool!” But I was wrong.

She looked me up and down, her mouth opened and the words that left her lips knocked down my sky-rocketing confidence.

“Sweetie, don’t you think those shorts are a little too short?”

Wenting Li

I was taken back by her words. My mother had examined my outfit before I left, but this teacher, who I had never talked to before, thought it was okay to embarrass me. I looked down at the jean shorts that reached the middle of my thighs.

“No, not at all,” I said. My hand was still on the school door.

I was not going to let this teacher change how I saw myself, I was not going to let her ruin the one day where I felt comfortable and beautiful.

“You need to go to the office. The vice-principal needs to check what you’re wearing.”

I was angry and disgusted. My mother had deemed my shorts appropriate, I also thought they were appropriate – and the kilted skirt of my normal school uniform reached the same spot on my thighs. Was it that strange for teachers to see female students in shorts? I certainly felt strange being judged for my shorts because I had never been called out for my kilt.

I was walked to the office like a toddler being led by its mother across the street. Students and teachers in the hallway looked at me – they knew where I was going. Every little piece of my confidence was shredded and my stomach turned with confusion, mixed with anger and sprinkled with annoyance.

As I waited in the office - missing my biology class - I watched more girls begin to pile in, all wearing dresses that reached a little bit above the knee or shorts that resembled mine. Not a single boy was sent to the office that morning. If I were a boy, I realized, nobody would ever come up to me and tell me that my shorts were too short, my top too low or my shirt too tight. I would be in class right now learning instead of in the office (with all the other girls) being examined to make sure our clothes did not distract the learning environment.

Finally, the vice-principal, a woman, came to look at my shorts. She made me turn around for her and then simply said, “Call your parent, those are not appropriate.”

I was angry, especially since I had seen her walking around school wearing a short skirt only weeks ago. I could not stay silent, not this time. The quiet and poised girl exploded.

“I do not want to argue with you, but this is not fair and completely sexist. I am someone who follows the rules every day, I wear your uniform, so today just let me be comfortable in school.”

Somewhere in my speech I started crying. I was frustrated that the way a female dressed was more important then her education. In some sense, it gave me a little perspective on women in other countries who are oppressed and girls who can’t go to school because they aren’t allowed. I always thought I was excluded from that narrative, but standing in the office, missing class because my shorts weren’t right made me realize that attitudes still need to change here.

Instead of hearing me out, or even acknowledging what I said, she walked away to scrutinize the next girl. “Anyone wearing shorts, dresses or skirts report to the office,” came the announcement. And then, both boys and girls started showing up because it wasn’t specific, but the guys were sent back to class. The announcement wasn’t directed at them, the VP said. While I waited, I watched girls twirl around for the VP and I watched girls leave school because they couldn’t get a change of clothes.

I finally got my pants and headed to class completely drained. I no longer walked with a pep in my step, I no longer walked with my head held high. That day, my freedom of expression was taken away. That day, my body was considered a distraction to learning. When will I, along with so many other female students, not have our bodies sexualized, and when will be seen for who we are?

I want to live in a world where my education is a priority instead of my clothing. Next time I get called down to the office, I do not want to hear about the clothes I wear on my body, I want to be called down to discuss the ways I can get the most out of my education. That is the kind of society I want to live in.

Annabella Serkhanian lives in Grimsby, Ont.