I Liked My Body – Until I Was Told “Respect Yourself” 

By Vanessa Velaquez 

In the middle of writing an essay during my third week of high school I got called out of class.

I couldn’t imagine why, but my teacher’s tone meant I was in trouble. I was so scared. Since I had been writing an in-class essay I worried that she might accuse me of plagiarism.

Instead, she lectured me on self-respect.

Turns out, I had worn a shirt that was too low cut for her taste as I leaned over my desk to write.

Being called out was embarrassing enough, but she also left the door open so everyone could hear our conversation.

It’s unfair to be punished for something you have pretty much no control over.

But guys can walk around shirtless, no problem?

The next year I was called out again for wearing a gray circle skirt that was “fingertip” length. A much slimmer girl wore the exact same skirt but she wasn’t called out.

This was a different teacher, but when I asked why I was being punished – when I had followed the rules exactly – she said the same thing: I wasn’t respecting myself. I was “a distraction to the class environment,” and “While you may have no control over the way you’re built, you do have control over the way you dress.” So it was my responsibility to cover up.

Back at home my family gives endearing nicknames, but mine is “Fatty” — which sounds less harsh in our language. I know they mean no harm but it does hurt my feelings, and adds to my body insecurity.

Meanwhile, my mom joins the bandwagon about showing too much skin, telling me that my body is a temple and I must respect it.

Even my shoulders aren’t covered enough. What’s the big deal about shoulders?

And why is self-respect tied to being completely covered up?

I was once proud of my curvy body. I loved myself and didn’t care what anyone else thought. But now it’s hard to feel confident when I’m constantly being criticized.

I appreciate feminists who stand up for women who are discriminated against for their bodies. The support definitely helps girls to accept the way they look.

I’m working to regain my confidence by reminding myself that other people’s words are just words. And there is nothing wrong with my body.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 20, 2017, in body image, sex and sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 55 Comments.

  1. interestingly, was this shirt part of your school uniform? I guess it makes no real difference here but it’s just a question. fact is when you can’t see what somebody looks like you’re less likely to make any judgements on what somebody looks like. every body type is different as a male I will admit I’ve got a bit of a gut and if I’m in a class or out somewhere I would try and do my best to hide it I’ve got that bit of a gut simply because of having had a second kidney transplant and making up for not being allowed to eat too much. when you’re on dialysis you are as skinny as a rake well I was anyway. I know I’ve got to lose that gut or else the extra bulk will put pressure on my organs particularly the transplant kidney which will not last as long the more weight I put on but this has nothing to really do with this post but thought I’d put it here anyway. I do apologise in advance if I start talking about the subject of breasts in general and here’s why I’m bringing it up. to me, and correct me if I’m wrong but I’ve had the belief that a bra makes breasts larger but that’s a theory for another time goes with the subject of body type and what some people wear as in garments.

    • I will let Vanessa know that I posted her piece. I don’t know whether she will respond. I suspect it’s not a school uniform because she mentioned that one other person was wearing a similar type of skirt. Taking a glance at the comments I noticed that another guy also mentioned feeling self-conscious about having a larger gut. And bras don’t make breasts larger but they can make them appear larger.

  2. To cover or not ….and of course…… how much to do……. is a…… tricky choice !!

    And after ( 100 %) covering also, there is no guaranty that the problem will be solved because the male eye, is well adept at ‘size guessing’ even when fully covered.

    Come to think of it, what do the beautiful ladies lose by this so called “exposing / exposure” ?
    Nothing !!

    In fact, I am of the opinion that by “exposure”… ladies make males ‘feel good’ – kind of a social service.

    More the better !!

    • Ha!

      And on your point about no covering can never be enough I’m thinking about a book called “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” After the Islamic Revolution women were told they must cover completely and a boy reported a girl because he insisted that he could see her neck, and that was too much of a turn on.

      I think that modesty rules are really about controlling women.

      • Yes, very true !!

        Men are unable to control themselves…. so….this ( controlling women ) comes handy, by way of a second ( and comparatively easier ) option !!

      • Yeah, the excuse that men can’t control themselves ends up being an excuse to control women.

        As I’ve written before:
        And plenty of assaulted women are not dressed sexily, including women draped in head-to-toe burqas. Interestingly, veiled women are blamed, too: “He must have seen a bit of her ankle, wrist, hair, neck… Who could resist!?”

        Strippers are the most sexually “provocative” of all, yet patrons manage to contain themselves. Yes, bouncers provide security, but they aren’t stationed with blinders blocking their sight. And who’s watching them? Male customers aren’t physically restrained. The men are actually controlling themselves.

      • “Male customers aren’t physically restrained. The men are actually controlling themselves.”

        That’s not a scientific statement. Men who touch the girls get kicked out and banned. Therefore the men who go to strip clubs are the subset who can control themselves. Your claim is like saying drug addicts can be trusted with a bag full of heroin because pharmacists have a shop full of drugs without self medicating.

      • Yeah, they get kicked out if they touch the women so they don’t touch the women. And they are actually controlling themselves so that they won’t be thrown out. They are not chained down to their chairs.

  3. I’m not clear whether the objection is being called out on your clothing, or whether it’s being called out in a discriminatory way because you’re curvy. Or is it both?

    • I guess we’d have to ask the people who were calling her out, but they would probably say it had to do with the way she was dressed “you can’t control how you look but you can control how you dress.” But I don’t like this body shaming.

      • No, I’m not asking about the people calling her out. I’m asking about the objection. Does she want complete freedom of dress, or is it perceived discrimination compared to other students based on body shape?

      • I don’t know whether she will respond to any of these comments but my guess is both.

  4. I experienced a little of the same kind of treatment for not having my shirt tucked into my pants. The teacher told me I was probably dressing like that because I was overweight.

  5. It has nothing to do with self-respect and everything to do with society’s need to judge and control women. Hmm… A perfect excuse to quote Sarah Fielding: ‘A Prude cannot, by an observing eye, be taken for a Coquet, nor a Coquet for a Prude, but a good Woman may be called either, or both…’

  6. Can you please show this comment to Vanessa?

    I may not agree entirely but I’ll explain the logic behind the expression.

    Today I was watching a video with a bunch of men and one guy accused another guy of “not respecting himself” because he spent too much money for his girlfriend who ended up cheating on him. Of course this man wasn’t implying that having money is anything to be ashamed of; rather, he was implying that it’s something so amazing that it should be cherished and only given to someone who deserves it.

    Basically, while you may not agree with the expression, it should be understood that even if you take the expression to heart, it’s not meant to imply that your body is shameful, but rather the opposite – that your body is so dang awesome that it should only be shown to people who deserve it.

    Personally I agree somewhat. There are guys out there who will literally pay for pictures of women wearing revealing clothes or being naked, and sometimes I worry that if women show themselves off for free, then we’ll no longer have that ability to profit off it.

    Some people say that women who wear revealing clothes are conceited, overconfident, and narcissistic. I personally don’t think they’re narcissistic enough; I’m personally so narcissistic that I think my body is so awesome that hardly any man deserves to see it except those who earn it, which is why I don’t dress revealingly.

    I guess it could be said that I “respect” myself – the definition of respect being “a feeling of deep admiration.” That’s not to say that women who wear revealing clothes *don’t* respect themselves; in fact, they may show their bodies off because they like their bodies so much. The different forms of dress are just different manifestations of self-respect – though I personally think that concealing our sexiness, until people earn it, has more benefits for us (again, some dudes will literally pay for it, which I think adds to the feeling of self-confidence).

    I don’t want to police other women’s attire, though. Do what you want. I just felt I’d add another perspective.

  7. As usual very interesting…

  8. I’m struggling with this one. As a person who works with youth, I make it a point to be extremely professional with students. It would be unprofessional of me to go to work in a low-cut top, a very short skirt or too tight pants. In a similar regard, I believe that kids should show me the same respect I show them. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think students need to be dressed in uniforms, but certainly be dressed in appropriate clothing. If that means demonstrating respect for yourself through the way they dress, then so bit it. This sentiment applies to both males and females. I do not want to be tutoring a girl only to see her cleavage staring right back at me. I do not want to see a young man’s pants hanging below his buttocks either. In fact, as a 32-year old female, I would not only be judged but probably prosecuted if I showed my buttocks to a 14-year old boy. So how why is it any different for a student to wear revealing clothing than from a teacher to wear revealing clothing? The same parents that complain about a school not allowing their daughter to wear short skirts, would probably complain if I showed up to a parent meeting with stiletto heals and a tube top. And the reason is-because there is a place and time to dress as you please. Personally, I always assumed that students go to school to learn. So I guess, if you don’t want to show respect for yourself, then maybe show respect for those that surround you.

  9. Cecilia Rivera

    It’s disgusting to hear that women’s bodies are “distractions for men”. When using that excuse, you are policing the idea that women are objects instead of human beings. Covering up or not does not stop the violence imposed on women, whether that be physical or verbal. In terms of your curvy figure, anything outside of European figures are deemed unworthy of respect. This idea stems from colonization. It’s extremely unfortunate, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. Perceptions from all forms of media are used to police women’s bodies into impossible standards. I surely hope that one day you can regain the appreciation you have for your body.

  10. I am sorry you had to go through that, especially in high school. Being a woman of color with a bigger bust and hips, I’ve gone through the same thing. At work, I’ve been told that my tops, that expose no cleavage, are inappropriate. My boss didn’t give me specifics about the complaint against my attire but suggested I buy looser clothes and repeated that I was very busty. After buying men’s tops for a month, I went back to wearing my normal clothes. I shouldn’t have to wear baggy clothing to make others feel comfortable. My clothing wasn’t exposing anything, and I see it as way to make me feel ashamed of my nonconforming body. I’m not white. I’m not thin, I have breast and wide hips and these are all natural biological aspects of being a woman. What really upset me was over analyzing my white co-work’s daily outfits, after I was reprimanded. White women came to work in tiny shorts, and several wore tops that exposed mid cleavage. It’s really not fair. Our bigger bodies accentuate our secondary sex characteristics and that makes people uncomfortable, but we shouldn’t have to cover up or apologize for it. The dress codes should apply to everyone, not just bigger women whose bodies make other uncomfortable. I want you to know that you aren’t alone in this and that I’ve talked to other women of color who have had this same experience. I hope you’re well on your way to self-love and enjoying your amazing body.

  11. RobertFoothill

    I thought this was very interesting because previous to reading this article I did not know that body type was a factor at all in these kinds of dress code issues. In high school, I had heard several times of girls being sent home for having shirts too small or pants that aren’t long enough, but I did not notice any correlation of body sizes. I knew both skinny and curvier girls who were punished. One thing I disagree with, however, is when you said “guys can walk around shirtless, no problem”. Sure in public places men can walk around shirtless with no repercussions, but women can also wear short shorts in public. Any place that I have been to with a dress code for women’s short length, or t shirt length, (places like schools, restaurants, gyms… etc) there are also rules for men, and keeping a shirt one is one of them. I know that if I walked around shirtless at my former high school it would not be “no problem” it would be a dress code violation and I would have to put a shirt on or be punished.

  12. Sophie Topping Zimmerman

    Girls are often told to cover up and make sure they are dressed “appropriately for class”. Even in my own high school, I witnessed this hypocrisy. One particular teacher was well known for evicting girls who were not dressed to her standards from her class. In the last few weeks of the school year, when it was sweltering hot, I wore a tank top and was told to go find a sweater and not return without one. At the time, like Vanessa Velaquez I was simply embarrassed. I was embarrassed to have been called out as the girl who had “done something wrong” in front of my friends. But the more I thought about it, the less fair it seemed. I was sent out of the class, denied the lesson for the day, simply because my shoulders might have distracted a male student? The fact that girls are unable to wear the clothes that make them most comfortable to learn in because they could be a “distraction” to the boys in the room is a deep issue. Instead of girls being forced to cover up and hide ourselves away, instead young men should be taught to respect women and their bodies. Of course, I’m not advocating for girls showing up to school naked, but instead of being told to respect our bodies by hiding them, we should respect our bodies by wearing the clothes that make us comfortable.

  13. Society is so hard to please. Growing girls are taught to dress conservatively and stay hush to themselves by their educational surroundings but are also influenced by the media to dress and act promiscuous enough to catch a boy’s attention but show him you are hard to get. How can a girl figure out what she believes is truly right vs. what society or a certain elder woman thinks is right?

    It’s a shame that Vanessa does not feel confident in her curvy body that she once loved because she’s been constantly told that it is not something to love and accentuate, but something to hide for others to not get distracted. Her body is her own and she can do whatever she pleases with it – whether it be draping a bed sheet over herself, or wearing a form fitting tank top on a hot summer’s day. No one should be in control of her opinion on how she looks but herself. Don’t get me wrong, there is a defined line of inappropriateness at school, but what is deemed as inappropriate in the dress code should apply to ALL genders and body types.

  14. In this society, girls are frequently told to keep themselves covered and dress “modestly”. As my family and community consist of somewhat conservative and traditional Asians, I am also told to be careful in how I dress and make sure I am not exposing myself too much. My mother often makes comments regarding how I dress, usually about how short my shorts, skirts, and dresses are. Because I am taller than a lot of people around me, some of my apparel will obviously fit shorter on me than they would on other people. Until I was a junior in high school, my mother would not allow me to wear shorts, and when I mentioned how everyone else wears them, she would tell me that I am not “like the others”.

    Personally, for me, this was never a problem at school. However, when I was in middle school, I witnessed other girls being dress coded for wearing shorts and skirts shorter than fingertip length and wearing spaghetti straps. In eighth grade, I had a teacher that would mention the color of the girls’ bra straps and tell them to find a sweater to cover themselves up. Although this never happened to me, this must have been a very humiliating experience for those girls to be called out in front of the class.

  15. MatthewFoothill

    Honestly, and I’m so sorry for being frank, I think most dress codes are stupid. I’ve always heard of dress codes from other high schools, and although it wasn’t really a problem in my high school the concept of it always just seemed so unnecessary. Like I understand, we shouldn’t be going to school and work topless, but things such as “not showing your shoulders” is just ridiculous. Literally any guy will tell you, covering up your shoulders won’t make you any less “distracting”, which in itself is just an absurd reason for dress codes. People are distracted because they don’t want to pay attention in the first place. If it isn’t the girl in class, it’s going to be what’s outside the window, or drawing in a notebook. I do online shopping or browse Facebook in class, because I inherently don’t want to pay attention in class as I value anything else as a greater use of my time then the material being taught in class. For example, in most of my design classes, I actually listen and actively participate, because that is what I am passionate about and have a yearning to learn more about the subject. Whereas in other classes, such as statistics, a subject I couldn’t care less about, I often wonder why I even go to class if all I do is just go to shop online. Either make the class more interesting, or accept that people aren’t interested in what you have to teach. People who want to be distracted, will be distracted, and a little piece of cloth covering a shoulder won’t change that.

  16. In today society we can never win. I feel her pain in a way. I am a black, white, and Mexican and my completion is a very nice honey brown. I love the way I look and love the way I look mixed but no ones knows. But I get the Blacks girls looking at me so rude because I have nice curly hair, I get the white girls looking at me crazy because I’m not skinny enough, I have curves, the hispanic girls laught at me because i can not speak spanish. I look at all them and think to myself im you and more and just beacuse you are only one i am more.When i was younger i didnt know how to take this treatment, but no I know to look at the and just smile.
    Sometime it don’t matter what you wear because you may be a curvy ladies and know matter how dig you pants are people is going to look and see you butt. Know matter if I’m wearing a jacket they are still going to see the outline of your breast. There is a line between showing off in skimpy clothes and just wearing clothes. For someone to be wearing the same kind of out fit or shirt as you and they not get talked to are pulled out of class is discrimation against you annnnnnd everyone knows that. Let’s all be real and truthful to ourselves, some people can’t take and can’t control themselves when they see a good looking woman and have to hind around BS to make themselves feel better or not like a perv.

    It suck to make someone that is happy in their own skin, feel that something is wrong with it..

  17. It is very disheartening to come across so many articles mentioning female students getting in trouble because of the way their clothing looks on their bodies. Justifying punishments by saying a skirt or shirt is “distracting” in a place of education is promoting the wrong values. Rather than restricting girls to wear certain clothing garments, the school system should aim to teach those bothered by it to not sexualize women based on what they wear. Limiting people’s rights to express themselves with their clothing only furthers the bias against women and making them feel inferior. To be told to have to change your shirt or skirt because it bothers someone else is demeaning and women should be allowed to show a little skin if they feel confident in doing so. I hope that this skewed perspective stops spreading throughout our education system because it would only continue to influence the younger generation to react in the same way.

  18. I can relate to your post because in high school I had almost a similar experience. It is unfair to treat anybody differently for their appearance. People don’t understand especially if they are slim with not many curves, that it is hard finding clothes that fit well on your curves. In school, I had many problems trying to find a shirt that would cover up my boobs because I had a big bust. Wearing a simple T-shirt would be uncomfortable for me so I would have to wear a bigger size. At my school, there were mostly Asian girls and a few Hispanic girls. Most of the Asian girls were slim with not many curves and a lot of Hispanic girls had curves. There were so many occasions where a slim girl would wear shorts that way too short and one of my friends would wear shorts that were the acceptable length to wear to school and my friends would be the ones to get called into the office to change. On hot days guys would take off their T-shirts sometimes on campus and nothing would happen. Meanwhile, if a girl was wearing a spaghetti strapped tank top that was not okay. Why wasn’t it okay? It was a distraction to the classroom. Girls are expected to cover up so boys don’t have the distraction to look at their bodies. However, when a boy in my class was wearing a muscle-T that had big enough holes on this side to see his nipples that was acceptable. This is a huge issue that we need to be talking about more because it is hurting girls and causing them to have eating disorders and other emotional problems.

  19. Having respect for one’s body does not have to mean they need to cover it up. Having confidence and loving how you look should be more of a reason to express yourself through your sense of fashion. While I do agree that dress codes in school are set in place for a reason (it would be quite the distraction for everyone if students wore nothing or almost nothing), Velaquez abided by the rules, so she did not deserve to be punished. If the school still thought the “fingertip rule” was too lenient, then they should have changed the rules before pulling Velaquez aside. Giving kids (both girls and boys) reasons to conceal their bodies and placing too harsh of restrictions on their sense of expression can hinder their growth and confidence. As social beings at a time where they may already feel self conscious due to hormonal changes, they need to feel more empowered and encouraged by the adults around them, who are supposed to support and guide them through life.

  20. I believe that women ARE constantly being bashed more often than before for revealing more skin than what the status quo would like to see. It seems like at the end of each day, its all about how you look in front of the mirror whether that is in the bathroom at school or at your household where you feel you are safe- but even our parents have a way of scrutinizing us for small details. The author quickly mentions how she is called “fatty” by her family members; but that it also has a less offensive connotation given where her family comes from. Off the bat, I can make a wild guess to say that she is of Hispanic descent because the word fatty translated in Spanish is “Gordita”, and considering the fact that I grew up in a predominantly hispanic environment, I can agree with her that although its not as offensive in Spanish, the social pressure coming from her mother and teachers at school is what hurts the most for her. I believe that every woman respects themselves to all degrees of both their physical appearance and mental stability for knowing themselves better than anyone else. Discriminating against someone’s body and saying they don’t respect themselves is similar to questioning their morality and values as a person- and that needs to change through not talking about the following at all to someone else and learn to understand one another’ point of view.

  21. I can honestly relate to you so much. A few years back when I used to play the piano for my church the pastor as well as my mom would always complain about the clothing I wear. They would say that I would show too much and that my clothes would be too tight. In addition to that they’d tell me that I am not respecting myself by showing too much. I myself have a curvy body and when they would tell me all of this my insecurities would grow because similar to yourself there was a girl who would wear the similar clothes I would wear but because she was skinnier they would not say anything to her. It really sucks to know that us curvy girls cannot wear the same type of clothing as thinner girls because according to other people we do not respect ourselves. But, with all that I have learned to love myself the way I am and I have learned to ignore the people who have something to say against what I wear. Thank you for sharing, this made me realize that I was not the only one.

  22. One great flaw of our society is the idea that women can never be perfect. Whether it’s in the case of women in the workforce, or the way that women present themselves and dress, it’s always too much or too little and never just right. As the writer of this post points out, no matter what she wears she receives comments from people pointing out what they see as wrong. I have often seen similar comments made toward women, but rarely are they made toward men in the same way, and there is a very different standard set for men versus for women. As pointed out in the post, a man can walk around shirtless in public no problem, but for her, even showing her shoulders gets her unsolicited comments from her family. It is a sad reality that these standards feed into the perceptions of a person’s self-respect. Although she respected herself and felt comfortable within her own skin, relentless degrading remarks slowly worked their way into breaking down that self-respect.

  23. Sarah Leverton

    Sadly many women and men suffer from body shaming. I believe our insecurities with our bodies are something we learn. From the things, our families say, to being told we are not dressing appropriately (even if we are) to the bombardment from the media. It is interesting to me how quick women are to judge other women. I am not innocent of this either. I am embarrassed to admit that at times I will find myself observing other women and judgmental thoughts will cross my mind. Maybe I think I don’t like an outfit she is wearing or perhaps her hairstyle. When I catch myself doing this, I ask myself, who am I to judge? Just because anyone’s taste in style doesn’t match my own doesn’t mean that they way they are dressed is wrong. My outfit or hairstyle choices are not always on point and can look rather silly at times. So then I observe what I do like, the color they are wearing looks beautiful on them, they exude confidence, etc. I have come to realize that those who criticize the way I dress and my body are struggling with their insecurities and deflecting them onto me. While I am not always successful, I try to remind myself of this and let go of my hurt feelings. In today’s world of impossible body expectations to live up to all women have some insecurity. The constant pressure to fit the perfect mold often causes women to feel competitive towards each other and in turn leads to body shaming comments. We need to start focusing on being accepting of each other and accepting of ourselves.

    • Interestingly, body shaming doesn’t exist everywhere. I was reading a book called Nisa, written about the !Kung in the 1970s. The women all have very favorable body image. But there is no one standard that they’re expected to live up to.

  24. Pamela Ndiribe

    This one is a bit tricky. I used to be someone very confident in my wing off my body (obviously when “appropriate”, but over the last year, I’ve sought out a more “classy” sex appeal. Basically, saying goodbye to some things I would have worn before. Rather than going for something that made me look “hot”, I would choose something that made me look “effortlessly attractive” with a classy appeal.
    I remember arguing with a mate that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want to wear, etc, and his response was quite interesting. He said, “out of all the things that you want to argue feminism on, why choose outside appearance? Women are seen as objects because of the way they look, so why make it worse?” I probably still don’t get what he meant fully, but I could respect his logic.

    • “out of all the things that you want to argue feminism on, why choose outside appearance?

      I agree with that at least when it comes to the right to be sexy, Because I wonder if what underlies this is internalization of a society that says women must be sexy.

      That said, modesty actually sexualizes girls bodies and teaches girls to be controlled. Things are considered sexy until you start to cover them and upsets over them. Look at tribal societies where women walk around nearly noon and no one cares. But when you start policing girls clothing it actually sexualizes them. It also controls them, Teaching girls to be controlled.

  25. I find it amazing how in high school, her outfit is considered a “distraction.” However, if you were to look at most female college students who wear clothes that are “too short,” the male college students aren’t distracted at all, or if they are, they still do well in class and don’t make a fuss and feel the need to make comments about it. The high school’s administration has oversexualized a young girl’s body. They have basically stated that her body, as well as her morals(telling her to respect herself), are on display to be scrutinized. They are also normalizing behaviors that women all over the everywhere must put up with everyday, like receiving unsolicited comments on their appearance. Overall, I believe the high school education system has failed this girl, and I could only hope that administration comes to their senses sooner rather than later.

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