SALT LAKE CITY – A group of Utah high school students said they were stunned and upset to discover their school yearbook photos were digitally altered, with sleeves and higher necklines drawn on to cover up bare skin.
Several students at Wasatch High School in Heber City say their outfits followed the public school’s dress code and they’ve worn them on campus many times.
“I feel like they’re trying to shame you of your body,” said sophomore Shelby Baum, who discovered a high, square neckline was drawn on her black, V-neck T-shirt.
Baum told The Salt Lake Tribune she was upset to learn a tattoo on her collarbone was erased from her photo. She said she consulted the school dress code before getting the tattoo, a line of script that reads “I am enough the way I am.”
“I was shocked,” said Kimberly Montoya, a sophomore who found the sleeveless top she wore last fall was converted into a short-sleeved shirt.
Editing photos to meet modesty standards is humiliating for girls, Montoya and other students said. The students also say the standards weren’t uniformly applied.
The Wasatch County School District said in a statement Thursday that students were warned when yearbook photos were taken last fall that images might be altered if students violated dress standards.
“When the yearbook comes out in the spring, students are always excited to see their pictures and are concerned with how they look in the yearbook, so it is understandable that students in violation of the dress code could forget that they received warnings about inappropriate dress,” the statement said.
District officials apologized about the alterations not being uniformly applied and said they were evaluating the policy of altering photos in the future.
Superintendent Terry Shoemaker declined to comment further.
Baum and Montoya said they knew of at least seven other students whose photos were altered.
KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City first reported the altered photos Wednesday. The students live in Heber City, which is about 30 miles east Salt Lake City and has a population of 12,000.
An estimated two-thirds of Utah residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which encourages its members to practice modesty in how they dress. For women, that includes covering bare shoulders and avoiding low-cut shirts and short skirts and shorts. The church also teaches members not to “disfigure yourself” with tattoos or piercings.
The guidelines stem from a belief that bodies are sacred gifts from God, and that God commands people to be chaste. Mormons tend to be uncomfortable with clothing that promotes sexuality due to these beliefs.
Church leaders have encouraged young girls in recent years to stay true to modesty standards despite being bombarded with images in popular society that don’t follow the same guidelines.
“The fashions of the world will change, but the Lord’s standards will not change,” says a pamphlet distributed to youth members of the faith.
The Wasatch School District dress code uses the word modesty twice: “Clothing will be modest, neat, clean, in good repair. Modesty includes covering shoulders, midriff, back, underwear and cleavage at all times.”
Most of the eight high schools in the Granite School District, one of the largest in the state, also ban bare shoulders, district spokesman Ben Horsley said.
Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Utah, slammed the altered photos.
“It is a keen example of how our culture, and especially those in power to make such random decisions, shame young women into thinking they must dress and act in one narrow, acceptable way,” Mullen said in a statement.
School dress codes have long been a source of consternation across the country.
Recently, some schools have banned leggings because they are too revealing. A middle school in Evanston, Illinois, told students that leggings must be worn with a shirt or skirt that reaches at least down to their fingertips. A Salt Lake City high school took the same action.
In 2012, a Utah public high school principal apologized to dozens of teens who were turned away from their homecoming dance because their dresses were deemed too short, in what parents and students called a “homecoming spirit massacre.”
In San Francisco, a Catholic high school earlier this month apologized to a student and her family for refusing to include a portrait of the girl wearing a tuxedo in its yearbook.
Legally, schools have a lot of leeway with dress codes, and legal challenges usually are unsuccessful, said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. Schools open themselves up to problems when the policy is not being implemented uniformly or when kids are not given proper notice, he said.
The ACLU is not involved in this new dispute, but Mejia said the inconsistent altering of photos at Wasatch sounds troubling from a constitutional standpoint.