Yearbook Censorship Sweeps Nation, Makes No Sense

Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16, points to yearbook proof, left, and her altered school yearbook photo, right, CREDIT: RICK BOWMER/AP
Wasatch High School sophomore Shelby Baum, 16, points to yearbook proof, left, and her altered school yearbook photo, right, CREDIT: RICK BOWMER/AP

What’s going on with all the yearbook censorship this year?

We’ve got ourselves a school in Arizona where the yearbook staff included a double-page spread on students with children and the challenges they face balancing academics and parenting. The section, titled “I’m working a double-shift,” incited your standard complaints from the neighborhood. Parents (grown parents, not teen parents) weren’t all too thrilled with the “message” it sent. At the end of the day, though, the kids stayed in the picture. Mesa Public Schools won’t be changing any of their policies regarding the yearbook. Meanwhile, over in Utah, girls’ photos have been photoshopped to add sleeves and higher necklines to their clothes — a sartorial censorship that the girls were not informed about until the pictures ran and that, according to the students, was been unevenly applied.

In Atlanta, a (hilarious and brilliant) high school senior who used chemistry as a code to tell her classmates to always remember to “back that ass up” was banned from a “senior walk” event and told she couldn’t speak at her commencement. This is how we reward kids who are smart enough to make Periodic Table puns? I thought we were supposed to be encouraging girls to pursue science and technology.

These incidents are not the first of their kind. Last year, a Michigan high school banned baby bumps in yearbook pictures; the students who were told to retake their photos refused to do so. According to the school, the photos were in violation of the district’s abstinence only sex ed policy. (This is a sort of funny and very stupid way to police yearbook photos. What about the guys who got these girls pregnant? Are they allowed to be in the yearbook? Are we rounding up all the non-virgins and giving them scarlet letters to wear?) Another 2013 teen mom was banned from her yearbook, too: Caitlin Tiller, a North Carolina high school senior who tried, and failed, to include a photo of herself holding her son. Two years ago, Colorado senior Sydney Spies was told the photo she submitted was “too sexy” for the yearbook. School yearbook staff at the time said there was precedent for killing the picture; two years before that, a male student’s shirtless photo had been banned, too. Spies ended up getting to include the photo in the yearbook, but on the provision that she ran it as an ad, which cost her $300.


Why do yearbooks inspire so much angst and hand-wringing? The yearbook, like a graduation ceremony, has an ownership identity crisis. Does it belong to the students? The faculty? The parents? All of the above? It’s a last ditch effort on the part of people — sometimes parents, sometimes faculty, sometimes high-achieving students — to control people who are beyond controlling. Most image sharing among young people can’t be reigned in by their elders: it all takes place online, over text and Instagram and Snapchat, in a chaotic, non-curated space. Soon, seniors will be out in the world, and high school administrators won’t be able to punish them for speaking, dressing or behaving in a way they happen to find uncouth. Some of it is a retroactive effort at control, like these baby bump bans: it’s already too late to stop these teenagers from having sex, but it’s not too late to control the narrative. (At least, adults hope it isn’t.) The same “it’s never too late to make students submit to our code of conduct” impulse is at play with the photoshopped shirts: those girls might think they get to decide how to dress, but they are mistaken. The yearbook is supposed to be an accurate reflection of that academic year, but not everyone thinks the truth is the best story. So, a little sleeve-addition here, a little hide-a-pregnancy there, and everyone can pretend the school year went according to plan: no inappropriate attire, no bad choices, no complicated consequences.

But that kind of revisionist history is at odds with the real purpose of a yearbook, a document that should belong to the people who care about it the most. And who cares about seniors and their yearbook photos? Just students! The yearbook comes out in the spring. The only people who will ever, ever look at that yearbook again are the very people who opt to include photos like these: the graduating class.

When, exactly, do younger, impressionable members of the community look at other people’s yearbooks? I find it hard to believe a thirteen year old in Arizona would get her hands on a yearbook — a yearbook presumably belonging to a student five years older than she is — flip through the pages of photos of people she does not know or care about, see a spread on teen parents, and think: “Hey, you know what would be super fun? Being a mom. Like, tomorrow! Bring on the unsafe sex!” As for Utah, policing the bodies of young women is a Puritanical pastime and, in that way, an American tradition, but it doesn’t make old men arbitrarily hiking up the shirts of teenage girls any less creepy or terrible.

What these complaints end up doing is bring national attention to what would otherwise be a very local problem. It’s the Streisand Effect: Pomp and Circumstance Edition. A yearbook is a publication that only students really look at, and with the advent of social media, that core base will look at it even less. It’s a dust collecting tome that we’ll use to show our grandkids How We Were Then. And our grandkids will probably be like, “What is this weird material?” And we will explain, “That’s paper, my child. Once there was a thing called paper. It came from the trees.” (Follow-up question from the post climate change generation: “What were trees?”)

The audience for these yearbooks are the students. And while a person could argue that some of the dress choices, for instance, are in bad taste, I would argue that bad taste it what being eighteen is all about. No amount of yearbook censorship could save us from poor fashion choices, from hairstyles gone out of style, from atrocious makeup application, from idiotic senior quotes. In fact, that Spies’s photo is sort of tacky and dumb and already embarrassing makes it the perfect choice for the yearbook. Bring on the bad taste, high school seniors. Don’t even try to fight it.