When I asked 17-year-old Lydia Cleveland if she had any hobbies, she laughed, and said, "Netflix? Or, wait, no -- burning the patriarchy!" She's being modest -- the guitar-playing teen interns at a hospital, and aspires to someday be a nurse. She works part-time at a local restaurant, in Midlothian, Virginia, as a hostess. Oh, and she wasn't kidding about dismantling the patriarchy. National media has covered the teen activist's every move after she took a stand against administrators at James River High School in protest of their dress code, which she deems sexist and unfair. From an interview with local news all the way to Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, and the American Civil Liberties Union (where Lydia will be penning an upcoming blog post), she's prepared to fight for her constitutional rights -- including the right to never wear the "shame sweatsuit" currently being used to punish dress code violators at JRHS.
MTV News reached out to James River High School but has not heard back at press time. We did, however, talk to Lydia about how it feels to be a student activist and leader, why feminist causes are so important to her, and why punishing young women by making them wear that sweatsuit is simply not OK.
MTV: Lydia, thank you so much for talking with us! Tell me how your school's dress code -- and the sweatsuit punishment -- is targeting female students, and therefore sexist.
Lydia Cleveland: Well, female students are the only ones I've ever seen forced to wear the sweatsuit. I’ve gone to James River for almost four years now, and I’ve never seen anything like this until this year. I think it’s horrendous. Unreasonable and shameful. And it’s only the girls who are being punished like this. I have never seen a boy in the shame sweatsuit, but I’ve seen probably – at least a girl a day, if not more.
At first I thought there was just one [sweatsuit], but now, I think there are a couple. It’s your standard baggy sweatsuit, and down the right leg, in handwritten block lettering, it says “Dress Code.” Across the chest too, handwritten: “Dress Code.”
Enforcing the dress code primarily towards females has always been an issue, but in my opinion, it’s never been an issue [at my school] to this extent. [...] If boys are seen in the hallways with a hat on, or with their pants hanging down, they’re told to pull their pants up, or take their hats off, and they’re sent on their way. With the girls, we’re pulled aside, told to put their hands down at their sides, to walk in front of administrators.
MTV: So, has the dress code changed from year to year? Have you noticed a difference in the way that women are treated specifically this year?
Cleveland: Each grade has an assembly each fall about what they expect from us, the rules. We were shown a PowerPoint with examples about dress code violations –- with nine examples for the women, and two for the men. Then, they spent probably close to fifteen minutes describing all the ways in which girls could violate dress codes, and at the end, briefly said, “OK, boys, don’t wear hats, and wear a belt.”
We’ve always had dress code information in the PowerPoint, and there have always been more pictures of girls, but -– this year, it’s just -- the balance is so uneven. [...] The implication is that we should be ashamed. Trying to shame [young women] into modesty. It sends a very strong message to girls that our education is less valuable [than covering up]. The administration never explicitly says who it is that they’re concerned about dress code violations “distracting,” but guess who’s not being punished? Boys.
A lot of us are about to go into college. There are huge sexual assault problems on college campuses, and clearly something we’re doing in America is wrong. Some people think I’m making a big stink because I want to wear provocative clothing myself, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it’s just a very dangerous philosophy. One quarter of American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and the culture that leads to that – we start this process young. Telling young women: “It’s your responsibility to cover up.” “You are a distraction.” “This is your problem.” And we’re simultaneously telling young men, “This isn’t your problem. If you’re distracted, it’s all girls’ fault -- you can’t help it.”
MTV: So, you noticed that this was happening, and you were upset and outraged that this was happening in your school. How did you make the leap from "I'm angry about this" to "I need to do something to change this"?
Cleveland: I drafted a Google Doc. [...] I shared it on Facebook, and asked my peers to help me edit. My peers decided to remain anonymous, so it’s signed “Lydia Cleveland and fellow students.” I don’t play any school sports, so it made sense -- I can’t really get in trouble the way most of them can. We wrote it, and tried to write it in a way that was as respectful as possible. We politely stated facts, and asked if we could work together with administration to change things. We stated that we knew the need for a dress code -- just that we didn’t want the dress code to be sexist. I am by no means advocating for NO dress code. I just want the dress code that we have to be fair.
MTV: And how did the administration react to your letter?
Cleveland: There’s been no response from administration. Nothing. I drafted that letter on September 17th and hand-delivered six copies to every administrator and the principal. I haven’t heard anything, even after all the media attention. I know the school is aware of it – multiple reporters have reached out to the school for comment, and they’ve declined to comment every time. [...] Today, an administrator came into my last class of the day. They didn’t say anything -- just came in, sat down silently, and then left as the class was ending. I think they’re trying to intimidate me. It’s working on a lot of people. Students who were initially willing to be on the front lines of this with me are starting to back down, kids who are worried now that this will impact their college recommendation letters or what it might mean for school sports.
I still feel a ton of support from my fellow students. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on Facebook and Instagram, people stopping me in the hallways to thank me. And some people still completely disagree. A very dear guy friend of mine told me that I was making a big deal of something that wasn’t a “real issue,” and it hurt -- this hasn’t been without its share of struggles. It’s been more attention and press in a week than in my entire life. It’s been a big adjustment. But I think it’s worthwhile, and I’m going to keep doing it. This is worth it, and I want to finish what I started.
MTV: Well, that story with your close friend speaks volumes: that there are a lot of people who don't believe that this is a "real issue," that there are other, more pressing problems in the world today. But this is an issue that is taking off in the media over the past several years. Why do you think people are finally starting to talk about these issues?
Cleveland: I think people are finally opening their eyes to issues like this. For a long time -- and it still is -- rape culture is a taboo issue, something you don’t talk about. There are still people that cringe when you say it -- it’s not a pretty word, it’s not a pretty topic. But young women realize how prevalent this issue is in our society. I’m a young women, I’m frequently catcalled -- young women understand this more easily, because we’re all going through this. It’s part of being a young woman in America right now -- you become accustomed to disrespect. People are starting to see that we don’t have to take this, and we don’t have to allow it.
And we can ask for more from our public schools. I mean, I pay taxes! I have every right to know what’s going into my own education. And if transparency is too much to ask for from our public schools, well, then we have a much bigger issue.
For a long time, I didn’t want to identify as a feminist. It’s really just been my junior and senior year that I’ve sort of openly said that I am, and I think that's because I was worried. Worried about pushback from males around me. I wanted approval, a homecoming date, just to fit in -- and as I’ve grown up a bit and discovered who I am, I’ve learned that I’m not willing to be quiet anymore.
There’s this old stereotype of feminists as bra-burning and man-hating, and honestly -- third-wave feminism, what we’re in now -- it couldn’t be further from that. Some young men -- not all, I have a ton of amazing male friends who identify as feminists -- but some people mistakenly associate feminism with both “wanting to be equal” but also “wanting special treatment.” But that’s not my idea of what feminism is at all. Equality is not about special treatment. We just want equality.
MTV: So, what happens now?
Cleveland: I think we’re going to have to drag the administration kicking and screaming into addressing this issue, and if that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we have to do. I am not going to be intimidated, and I’m not going to back down. There are too many real problems that start with this, something as little as a dress code that builds into a subjugation of women. And we’re going to do something about it. Who better than the class of 2016?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.