HELENA — It might have started with a bra, or rather the absence of one, but that’s not what it’s all about.
That’s the message Kaitlyn Juvik is delivering after she didn’t wear a bra to school last month and was told by officials at Helena High to put one on or cover up.
The incident garnered national attention — Juvik has appeared in People, Teen Vogue and Seventeen magazines and countless online outlets — and it has also given the 18-year-old a platform to share her message about gender inequality and objectifying women’s bodies.
Juvik was leaving her fourth-period class on May 25 when a vice principal at Helena High said she needed to talk to her.
In the administrator’s office, she said she was asked “Did you forget something?”
Juvik wasn't wearing a bra, but it wasn’t an oversight. She hadn’t worn one all year. It was a decision she initially made based on comfort. She wears a lot of off-the-shoulder shirts and didn’t want her bra straps showing and found strapless bras cumbersome.
“A lot of my friends didn’t wear bras and I asked ‘How do you do that?’ And they said you just do. Just stop. And I did.”
She said never expected her choice to go braless would turn her into an advocate for social change, but she’s now embracing her time in the spotlight.
“Why do I have to be uncomfortable to make someone else comfortable?” she asked last week. “We need to show girls can be comfortable with their bodies and don’t have to cover up.”
Juvik said she was taken off-guard by the administrator’s request, so much so that she initially told the vice principal she would either change or cover up, but she didn’t.
“After I left I was like ‘I don’t think she can do that,’” she said. Principal Steve Thennis said in an email that Juvik violated the dress code but that there were no demands she put on a bra.
She was wearing a black, loose and off-the-shoulder V-neck shirt, one she’d worn a handful of times that year and she calls “not super bad.”
After school, her mom asked her to bend forward to make sure her breasts weren't visible. They weren’t, Juvik said, adding that if they were she would have been in the wrong.
Juvik posted about the incident on Snapchat shortly after it happened. About 10 people from her school contacted her, and a longtime friend suggested organizing a no-bra day as a peaceful protest and created a Facebook page to promote the event.
On May 27, several students attended classes without wearing bras. Juvik said she was pulled out of class four times that Friday and was asked by administrators to take down the Facebook page.
She said she was told the event was too distracting and interrupted other students’ learning, but she pointed out the administrators were interfering with her education that day too.
“I didn’t go to one full class that day,” she said.
Juvik said the school has been painted as a villain, but that’s not where the focus should lie. Helena Public Schools Superintendent Kent Kultgen said last week that the school was enforcing its dress code.
“We want people to understand the bigger picture here,” Juvik said. “It’s about gender equality and women being asked to cover up.”
The Facebook page Juvik and her friends set up now has 7,000 likes; four times the enrollment at Helena High. The attention she’s gotten from beyond Helena caught Juvik by surprise.
“It’s been crazy and hectic. I’ve had a lot of mental breakdowns over the last few weeks.”
She’s glad the issue is being discussed, but that hasn’t come without a cost. Juvik has read most of the comments on stories that have appeared in national magazines and on the Facebook page, both the ones in support and others that are critical of her.
“It’s not worth commenting back to every single person that doesn’t agree with me,” she said. “I’ve been called an attention-seeker and lots of derogatory names, but it’s a bummer people can’t understand what this is about. My mom and I have been called some terrible things. But we keep reminding people ‘Hey, it’s not even about a bra.
“I’m taking advantage of how big it’s gotten. I’ve always felt strongly about gender equality but didn’t equate it to not wearing a bra.”
Last Wednesday the YWCA Helena, Friendship Center, and Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence hosted a discussion on body shaming and image, with Juvik and her mother, Tami.
About 30 people attended, including school board member Sanjay Talwani. He said it was a productive and positive dialogue about body image and the over-sexulization of young girls.
Talwani said he and another school board member at the talk were asked what the school could do to address the situation and the idea of a program to teach kids gender respect came up. MaryJane Ilgenfritz, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who runs the YWCA’s social and racial justice program, said work will continue on what the community can do next.
It will be a long process, Juvik said, but some sort of education on gender issues in schools can help create a change.
“It’s not going to be in a year or five years. It starts at a young age. We need to teach boys and girls. If we want a child to act a certain way, we need to start from a young age.”
The group that gathered at the YWCA didn’t dwell on blame, Talwani said, adding the school’s principal received a large amount of unjust criticism.
“To think he’s or anyone else involved here is a retrograde misogynistic is a wrong conclusion. The outrage that a particular person at fault in this … that isn’t the goal. That’s the wrong perception and the wrong conclusion.”
Juvik said she doesn’t think the school should be attacked, though schools do need to adapt.
“I could care less if people even mention the school anymore. But in order for everyone to get an equal education, that social change needs to happen. I know they talk about it being a distraction, distracting from learning, but I was pulled out of class four times that day, so either way someone's education was affected.”
Billings Skyview High School came under similar criticism in fall 2014 when students protested a dress code that banned girls from wearing yoga pants unless the student also wore a top that covered her bottom.
Terry Bouck, School District 2 superintendent, said the whole thing blew over in a matter of weeks inside the school, but lived on longer in the media.
“You have so many other important issues you have to contend with at as a school or a district. Thinks like the pants issues … it came and it went. People talked about it, it came and it went, we got some phone calls. It wasn’t a huge deal, if I look at the issues we’ve dealt with.”
Bouck said dress codes are meant to facilitate a school free of distractions.
“If there’s something that disrupts the learning environment, let’s say a T-shirt that has vulgar or inappropriate language, that is disruptive and you take care of that stuff. You deal with things on a case-by-case basis.”
Students have freedom of speech, Bouck said, but if through expressing themselves they impede the learning of others, the school could step in. He pointed out dress codes have evolved and the issue probably still isn't settled.
“Years ago if you came to school with purple hair you wouldn’t be in,” he said. “We know that’s not a distraction anymore. That’s something that’s accepted.”