Last week in South Carolina, a school principal told a group of 10th grade girls that, unless they are a size zero or two, they can’t wear leggings. Why? Because they “look fat.”

There are two main ideas to aunpack when it comes to a principal telling girls that they look fat. Firstly, what’s wrong with looking fat? I’m plus size and I’m wearing leggings today. I’m pretty sure I’ll look a little fat.

While I’m okay with looking fat, I’m also six years past 10th grade. These girls have rapidly changing bodies, and hearing those bodies being described as “fat” could (and very well might) stick with them as they become adults.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Brendan Jones / Equinox Staff

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Brendan Jones / Equinox Staff

We are currently raising our girls (and boys) in a culture where fat is one of the worst things someone can be. I understand that completely.

I was a 10th grader who wore leggings, and I was also a 10th grader who had an eating disorder. I lived in fear of looking fat, even though I was much thinner than was healthy.

Looking back on pictures from 10th grade, I see someone who looked frail and unsure. Hearing someone in charge, especially a trusted female figure, saying that I looked fat would have destroyed my self image even more.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) says that twenty million women and girls will suffer from diagnosed eating disorders in their lifetime. That attitude starts as young as first grade, according to NEDA. Disordered eating and low self-worth can’t just be blamed on the media or thin models. Teachers, coaches, school principals and parents can all participate in giving young girls a negative body image.

Secondly, a sexist dress code clearly contributes to a negative body image. I personally rallied against the wording of my school’s dress code.

It previously said that a dress code was in place to prevent “distraction in a learning environment.” There was a long list of guidelines, mostly focused on clothing girls would wear.

Personally, I find a principal talking about her students looking fat a lot more distracting than leggings.

When leggings, bra straps or an exposed mid-thigh are ruled to be more distracting than body-shaming, we have an issue.

When the size of a 10th grade girl’s legs are legislated, it shows that preventing the possibility that she might “look fat” or “be distracting” is more important than her education, we have an even bigger issue. I saw it in my own school system.

My little sister’s friend, at the age of 14, had to sit in the in-school suspension classroom for an entire day because her shorts were too short. Think of it this way: the length of her shorts are more important than her right to be in class and learn. That’s body shaming.

Thankfully, our principal never told her, or any of us, that we “looked fat.” Sometimes, the implicit shaming of female bodies is just as damaging as something announced at an assembly.

As we move forward in a nation where our president can say on national television that a Miss Universe contestant has gained weight and still get elected, we have to remember this: people in power have a responsibility to empower, not shame. Whether you are a world leader or a school principal, there has never been a more pertinent time to work toward body acceptance in schools and in our culture.

Abby Shepherd can be contacted at ashepherd@kscequinox.com