Professor Wants To "Shake" Some Sense Into Scantily Clad StudentS

When a Civil Liberties professor finds herself offended by a student's skimpy clothes, she's caught between theory and reality. When is clothing inappropriate? And can a professor ever say so?

The writer in question, a professor who teaches on Civil Liberties, feminist history and opposes dress codes, does not think of herself as someone who'd object to a student's clothes. A former hippie, she's done her share of iconoclastic dressing. And yet, when a student approaches her in front of the class, she's taken aback. Writes Jill Silos-Rooney,

It wasn't our conversation that threw me; it was her clothing. Or, rather, lack thereof. My young student wore a tight-fitting, scoop-necked, midriff-baring T-shirt, with an obvious Wonderbra displaying her assets. She also wore jeans, but not in the sense that I used to wear jeans growing up, when Levi's, Lee, and Wrangler were the only brands (except for the brief "designer jean" fad). The jeans my student wore were tight and slung so low they could have been an advertisement for the salon that did her bikini wax. In fact, I've seen more modest bikinis on Brazilian models.

As much as the fact that the student's clothing is proving a distraction to her classmates, the professor is troubled that "she became thoroughly objectified, right before my eyes. I wanted to shake her and remind her that she was more than the sum of her very blatantly displayed parts, to throw a little feminism her way and wake her up to her more hidden-and infinitely more valuable and long-lasting-assets."

But is that her role? To what extent can a professor dictate how an adult presents him — or, more importantly, her — self. In the end, she can only do what she does, which is educate.

I hope that teaching my students about hell-raisers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Margaret Sanger, and Betty Friedan-women whose voices were so strong that they didn't need provocative clothing to be noticed-will go a long way toward demonstrating that individuals are worth more than any of society's superficial valuations. I hope that my students, both male and female, will sail forth having internalized the words of great leaders and common folk alike who demonstrated their inner strength without recourse to Botox and breast augmentation. I hope that they will one day come to realize that, when all is said and done, their contributions to society will rest not on how toned their bodies are and what fashion choices they make but on how they live their lives.

Or, even better, she can hope that students will learn from these people and form their own conclusions: whether that means a subversion of these values or a flouting or a reclamation. The fact that this young woman is in the class at all should not be regarded as ironic so much as interesting; I'd be curious to hear her take on the debate she's set off.

The story inspires a series of sympathetic recollections from fellow pedagogues, and one anecdote in particular bears hilighting. Contributes this reader,

I ran into this a few years ago while taking students on a tour of the middle east. While touring historical sites, several female students on the trip, against our advice, wore very revealing outfits. It offended the locals. We cautioned them not to do so, but they did the next day as well. On the third day, I paid our tour guide $25 to tip a security guard at a Moslem historical site, pretend to argue, and have the guard ban them from entering, saying out loud "no prostitutes". The guide explained tot he guard what we wanted to do, and he happily obliged. The 7 students had to wait outside (we also locked the bus so they couldn't sit in the bus), for an hour. They didn't know where to go, were afraid to wander off, so they were miserable. And angry. They told us how wrong the guard was not to let them enter the site, and how they needed to loosen up. But after lunch two of them put on a sweater (covering up, and we repeated the prank, and the other five had to wait outside again. The next day two were determined to win the argument and wore even more revealing. We stopped them getting on the bus and warned them they'd be banned. Both insisted, and so I paid yet another $25 for yet another ban. The guide was loving it. They admitted defeat, and wore modest outfits after that. It was money well spent.

This "prank" — having students be called prostitutes based on what they're wearing — does not conform to any school of teaching we've encountered. Creating a semblance of intolerance seems unlikely to provide education to students, nor teach them any fundamental lessons about respecting other cultures. And resorting to quite literal slut-shaming seems to underlie the entire problem of intergenerational communication: what could be a "teachable moment" instead becomes one of mutual resentment. This points up the need for conversation that the initial article raises — but not in the way either writer intended, I'm guessing.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire piece, though, concerns not the male but the female reaction to the initial, scantily-dressed student: "Some of them rolled their eyes and cast snarky glances at one another. Others merely looked upon her with heartbreaking hopelessness." Why are snark and envy the alternatives? Maybe this is what the professor needs to be focusing on, too, as much as this one student's choices. She should be exploring that knee-jerk reaction as much as make one girl reconsider her clothing. After all, something's only "inappropriate" if we decide it is.

Student Bodies [The Chronicle of Higher Education]