A Utah school teacher who is a bikini model and body building competitor, says she walked into her classroom with her head held high on Wednesday, one day after school district officials apologized for mandating that she remove bikini posts from her social media pages or risk being fired.
“This is the first time I’ve ever stood up for myself and it feels great,” Mindi Jensen, 37, a single mom of four and a detention teacher at North Sanpete Middle School in Moroni, Utah, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “It’s a little awkward at school now, but I am who I am, and I’m not going to change. If it means that an employer will think twice about doing this to somebody else, then it’s worth it.”
Jensen, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Utah, where she accepted the middle school teaching job in May, was afraid she would be fired this week after parents complained that pictures she’d posted after a third-place win at a recent body building competition were immodest and pornographic.
Although the photos were posted on Facebook and Instagram under a pseudonym, “a few kids at school Googled me and ended up on my sites about a month ago,” Jensen tells PEOPLE. “They told their parents and the parents then went to the principal about it. I was shocked when I was called into the office and told that my pictures were a problem. I was given three choices: I could make the posts private, take the pictures down or be fired.”
Recently divorced, Jensen says she started lifting weights six months ago to boost her spirits and become healthy again after months of depression.
“I’m 5’8″ and my weight had dropped to 100 pounds,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was so unhappy with my life that I didn’t eat. After I moved to Mount Pleasant, I decided to join the gym and work on getting fit again, physically and mentally. I found I really enjoyed it and started dedicating myself to working out, one hour a day, six days a week. For the first time in a long time, I felt good about myself.”
To boost her self-esteem and reward herself for her hard work, Jensen began competing in body building contests and posting pictures of herself in her bikini on social media sites.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it – people post pictures like these all the time,” she says. “So it hurt when people looked down on me for it and thought I should be ashamed. Why should it matter that I compete as a body builder in my private life?”
Jensen says she was called in to school principal O’Dee Hansen’s office every Monday for a month to be reprimanded for posting her bikini photos.
“He’d say, ‘What about this picture,’ or ‘What about that one? Why haven’t you made these private?’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “I thought, ‘Why are they getting on my case about this? Why do they keep going to my pages and looking for new pictures to complain about?’ It got so that I hated going to school on Monday because I knew I was going to get talked to about it.”
Jensen says she asked Hansen, “Aren’t I good teacher? Do I come to school dressed appropriately? Do I behave appropriately? Would you really fire a good teacher just because of pictures she has on Instagram?” (School officials referred all requests for comment to the North Sanpete County School District.)
“I was told, ‘It’s in the best interest of the students,’ ” she says. “My response was, ‘Doing physical fitness does not change my standards as a teacher.’ I care about my kids. I feel like I can relate to them. I didn’t want to lose my job.”
After a friend convinced Jensen this week to take her story to a local TV station, school district officials admitted they were wrong and quickly apologized.
“The district has cleared up any misconceptions with employees and will conduct training for parents to teach their children appropriate Internet usage,” Sam Ray, North Sanpete School District Superintendent, said in a statement.
Jensen is relieved that she will keep her job. “I feel strong and I feel good coming to work every morning,” she says. “And in my off-hours, I’m going to continue body building. There’s still a lot that I want to accomplish.”
After going public with her story, Jensen says she was thanked by two other teachers at the school – one with a daughter who competes as a body builder and a male teacher who wears his long hair in a ponytail.
“He said, ‘I can’t tell you how many people have complained to me about my ponytail,’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “He also knew what it was like to be feel judged. So I’m very glad that I came forward. Speaking out was the right thing to do.”