The College Fashion Gender Gap

Despite continued news about women's academic success in college, concerns are growing that male students still call the shots. One symptom, according to some, would be what we'll call "fashion inequality." Specifically, it's only the ladies who are getting all dolled up.

On Friday, Lisa Belkin of the Times provided a rundown of recent sexist e-mails sent by college assholes, and asked, "what are we to make of the fact that lessons of equality, respect and self-worth have been heard when it comes to the classroom, but lost somewhere on the way to the clubs?" She draws from interviews with students, who cite a number of inequalities. Says one student at the University of Utah, "It's usually the guys who are throwing the social events and the girls are guests, so it gives them power over the girls." Another, from Princeton, explains,

When the guys go to the [eating clubs] they are laid-back, casual, like they are going to class. But the women come in, in short cocktail dresses, makeup, high heels. Sometimes it can be like if you're a girl and you don't dress up, there's a social expectation that you should dress up and you should appear sexually available.

This sartorial mismatch is oft-noted in feminist circles and beyond — and when I spoke with college women, several echoed the Princeton student's analysis. Jamie Keiles, author of The Seventeen Magazine Project and current University of Chicago student, says,

I definitely feel that "meat market" vibe at frat parties (our sororities don't have houses or parties, so most big parties are thrown by guys). The "meat" feeling doesn't so much come from girls getting done up as it does from boys doing nothing with their appearance. The level of effort girls put into their appearance for these kinds of parties runs a spectrum, but almost all of the boys come in what they wore to class. This lack of effort on guys' parts makes it feel like, any effort or lack of effort you put into your appearance as a woman for whatever reason, is for the boys' sake.

Alison Greenberg, Yale '14, told me that there was "hands-down a disparity in time of preparation" between her male and female classmates. She said that women tended to wear skirts, dresses, and even furs in the winter — "there's a lot of showmanship" — whereas men usually stuck to a uniform of t-shirt or button-down and pants. She noted that these clothing differences also had a class element — socioeconomic disparities, she says, are far more noticeable among women than among men because of their fashion choices. She noted, however, that sartorial norms were not the same across the board: "Yale is not one standard culture in any way. There are a lot of different Yales to be had, a lot of different gender relations at play." Keiles made a similar observation, noting that the "meat market" isn't Chicago students' only option:

[T]here are plenty of other social scenes. This isn't the atmosphere at every party. I go to plenty of parties where everyone gets dressed up, or nobody gets dressed up. Where men and women have a more progressive relationship, and where dating dynamics fall outside of a heteronormative paradigm. I don't like the meat market thing, but some people do for whatever (possibly socially constructed) reason, so I can see why it thrives.

It's undoubtedly true that college campuses typically boast a wide variety of social groups, with different mores and standards. However, this doesn't always mean perfect gender equality is available. Dominique Benzio, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, told me,

I run with what I like to think is a more accepting and "progressive" crowd (one that openly accepts people of all genders, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations) than the fraternity boys and sorority girls, but I still feel a certain pressure to perform gender by styling my hair, putting on makeup, and wearing more alluring clothes than I would for class when I go out at night. I am often jealous and even bitter towards the fact that my male friends and boyfriend can be ready to go out at any time, where I have to take at least a half hour to prepare my appearance before attending a large social event.

Benzio added,

[I]t seems like girls are meant to suffer more for physical (or sexual) approval on campus, whether the suffering come in terms of time spent getting ready, money spent on new clothes, discomfort from wearing ill-fitting clothes or uncomfortable shoes, or even illness from not dressing properly for the weather. It amazes me that so many girls on campus (myself included) feel that all of those (albeit small) sufferings are really worth it just to gain a little bit of acceptance or sex appeal, and that while it is extremely easy to question these norms in an intellectual context, it is so difficult to question them in action.

Not everyone is as dissatisfied with the status quo as she is — Greenberg considers the clothing differences at Yale simply "good training for the real world." But Benzio's words reveal something important — even if young women aren't crazy about the double standards that still exist on their campuses, they sometimes feel powerless to change them. And so those who argue that women now enjoy complete equality (or even domination) at universities need to realize that equal numbers don't necessarily mean equal rights.

After Class, Skimpy Equality [NYT]

Image via misslucyisadj's Flickr.