The Anchorage School District in Alaska is appealing a recent decision to disqualify a champion 17-year-old swimmer because a referee thought her school-issued swimsuit showed too much of her buttocks.
As the Washington Post reports, the Dimond High School student—one of the top swimmers in the area—had decisively won her 100-yard freestyle event last Friday before an official alerted her she had been disqualified for breaking a modesty rule.
The referee told the Anchorage Daily News the female official who made the call said the teen’s suit “so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek.’’
In other words, the teen had a wedgie—which is a pretty standard occurrence for any athlete in any sport when their uniform doesn’t allow them to have full coverage. According to the Anchorage Daily News, one longtime swim coach said Anchorage high school coaches were given specific instructions with regard to girl’s swimsuits: “that as far as the buttocks region goes, you should not be showing any part of the intergluteal cleft.”
But the National Federation of High Schools handbook, upon which the modesty rule is based, has no reference to the “intergluteal cleft,” stating merely that a girl’s breast and buttocks be covered by her suit.
The Daily News also noted that the swimsuit the girl was wearing was school-issued and approved by the district: every Dimond high school girl was wearing the exact same suit.
But only the one swimmer, described as mixed-race and “curvy,” was punished for her attire.
The story first came to national prominence in part because of a widely-shared Medium post by swim coach Lauren Langford, who coaches swimming at a neighboring high school and used to coach the teen swimmer and her sisters when they were younger.
In her essay, Langford argued that the ref’s call was rooted as much in racism as it was sexism.
These young swimmers aren’t being punished for wearing their suits in scandalous or provocative ways, but rather, because their ample hips, full chests, and dark complexions look different than their willowy, thin, and mostly pallid teammates. Some will argue this scandal has nothing to do with race. But the issue becomes glaring when officials are overheard acknowledging that white athletes are baring too much skin as well, yet they’ve never been disqualified for a similar violation.
The referee’s controversial call was not the first time this particular swimmer was subjected to gross and improper commentary on her body by the presumed adults in the room, according to Langford.
This same girl was the subject of one rogue team parent’s photography project last season, in which they took graphic photos of her backside in her swimsuit — without her knowledge or consent — and circulated the images via email as evidence that her attire is immoral. She is a minor — that parent should be arrested for possession and distribution of child pornography.
Imagine: taking and distributing photos of a child’s backside to prove that she is the immoral one.
As vile and disgusting as the swimmer’s treatment was, it’s far from anomalous when you take her race into consideration. The policing of black women’s bodies is as old as the republic, and one that has been codified in myriad ways. Among the most routine is dress code violations—under which this swimsuit debacle falls—which disproportionately penalize and humiliate black girls.
One recent study found that black girls are five times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended for dress code violations. Another report based out of Washington D.C. found this was particularly true for darker-skinned and curvy girls.
The effects on these girls are multiple: the disciplinary action becomes a form of public shaming of their bodies. The people leering at them or evaluating them aren’t the problem—they are.
Langford noted this was already taking place in the swimmer’s Anchorage community, “parents have been overheard saying that for the sake of their sons, the mother of these young ladies should cover up her daughters.”
“What has been carried out on pool decks in Alaska over the last year is nothing short of racism, sexism, body-shaming, and child abuse,” Langford added.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage School District sided with the teen, saying they had reviewed the incident and concluded that she “was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body,” adding that the referee’s decision was “heavy-handed and unnecessary.”
The District has asked the Alaska School Activities Association to reverse the swimmer’s disqualification, as well as revoke the certification of the referee who made the call (the referee has yet to be publicly identified). The swimmer’s mother told KTUU the ref in question had embarrassed another daughter by criticizing her swimsuit; the mom said she wants the ref to be barred from officiating her children’s future meets.
Updated Thursday, 9/12/19 at 9:35 a.m. ET: The Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) overturned the swimmer’s disqualification late Tuesday night, saying the referee’s ruling was invalid because the official “did not notify the coach prior to disqualifying the student,” USA Today reports.
All team and individual points were restored to the teen swimmer, as well as the Dimond High School swim team.
The Anchorage School District says it intends to decertify the referee who made the call against the swimmer, telling the Anchorage Daily News, “we cannot tolerate discrimination of any kind, and certainly not based on body shape.”