On the Friday before sixth grader Molly Neuner decided to break her school's dress code on purpose, she went to a community meeting.
At that community meeting at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, half of her grade, both boys and girls, gathered to talk about the dress code. That's when Molly realized something: There were wildly different rules for the girls and the boys, with far more attention paid to what the girls were wearing than the boys.
What's up with that, anyway?
"We were sitting in our community meeting, and the teachers told us about the dress code... and then the girls asked why it mainly applied to girls," Molly said. "Then they said it doesn't, it also applies to boys, but also it's because it's a distraction for boys. It made me feel uncomfortable, because I don't want boys looking at me in weird ways and it was awkward. It made me feel sad, because I knew friends in that room who were lesbian or gay who were left out, and I saw another girl look down and looked upset because they said that."
The following Monday, Molly experienced firsthand what it felt like to get called out at school because of her clothing, with a teacher telling her and a friend to stand up in front of the class and measure her shirt strap. If she wore that shirt again, she was told, she'd get detention. When she came home and told her mother, Christina Neuner, this, that's when the wheels started turning.
"I thought, 'Oh hell no, this is not happening,'" Neuner said in an interview. "The next day, we started looking online at 'girls and dress codes' and saw it was a problem at other schools, and we found the #IAmNotADistraction campaign."
It was Molly who wanted to make a statement, to break her dress code on purpose in order to draw attention to the unfair difference in attention paid to what the girls are wearing at her school.
So last Wednesday, Molly wore a tank top that she loved with lace at the top, but also one she knew would be breaking the dress code. She paired it with the words #IAmNotADistraction written on her arm, a hashtag that has been used to call out dress codes before.
"My mom showed me the hashtag pictures on Instagram from other groups, and I was really inspired by that," Molly said. "I knew that I wanted that written on my arm, and wanted to get a lot of girls to do it. So I decided to wear that and totally break the dress code, and I didn't care what the teachers or anyone said because it's my body, my choice."
Molly's actions started a movement at her school, with several of her friends purposely breaking the dress code too.
"I was super proud that I helped make a difference and helped teachers realize that this is an issue, and I was so proud of all the other girls that came and wrote on their arms," Molly said. "Some girls wore short dresses without leggings, or took off their coats with tank tops on and dropped the coats and kept walking. I was so happy that everyone pitched in. It was so cool."
What's even cooler is that the school actually responded well to it. Almost immediately, teachers at the school voiced their support, and the principal told Molly that day that the school would be reviewing its dress code policies.
"My social studies teacher told us that it was super cool we were doing it, and that we were right, that we aren't distractions," Molly said. "She was super supportive of it, and our teachers were all super supportive. Then the principal called me into her office and we talked, and she said they would review the dress code at the end of the year."
Indeed, although no one at King Middle School responded to our requests for comment, the principal, Caitlin LeClair, told the Portland Press Herald: "We plan to take this feedback and use it as an opportunity to have some students' and parents' input."
In speaking out about the sexism within her dress code, Molly joins young people across the country who have come to school in things like T-shirts or red letter As (a node to The Scarlet Letter) in an effort to draw attention to unfair dress codes.
Ultimately, what both Molly and her mother hope happens with the dress code, which will remain the same for the remainder of this year, is that there are less divisions between what girls can wear to school and the boys.
"I hope the school learns that everyone has their own voice," Molly said. "The rule shouldn't be only one way, it should go both ways. If they're going to have a dress code, it should be fair for both girls and boys. Or they should have a uniform or something."