“Student Bodies” – Revealing Dress by Students in Higher Education

I recently read this article at the Chronicle of Higher Education about college students wearing revealing dress.  Clothing that is so revealing, the writer (and professor) explains, it is a distraction to the learning environment.  The whole article is so interesting and thought provoking that it’s hard to pull out the key points to quote here – especially if you believe in freedom of expression through clothing.

I think this excerpt does a good job in illustrating the questions this article raises:

But how much does clothing contribute to the dynamic in the classroom, and what kind of contribution does it make? Is it merely something we should ignore, or should we bring discussion of personal choices into the class? When I lecture on the history of civil liberties, it’s easy enough to discuss controversies over public schools and their policies about appropriate clothing. But should I also raise the issue of the fashion choices visible right there in the classroom, or do I risk alienating those students who proudly flaunt their so-called tramp stamps?

As an educator, I want students to feel comfortable in my class, so I can’t simply tell them that their clothing is too sensational, not to mention tacky, and therefore distracting to other students and a violation of my aesthetic sensibilities. I also can’t gently point out that the absence of a stripper pole in the room means that such ensembles should be saved for other more, shall we say, raucous occasions. Nor can I tell a female student that though I appreciate her self-acceptance, I would prefer not to see her butt-crack every time she turns to sit in her seat. After all, I’m not even supposed to see her butt-crack, right?

But it’s hard to miss. The female student in the “pubic jeans” drew so much attention from the rest of the class 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.

So, what do you think? I went to a public high school that allowed students a huge amount of freedom with their clothing choices.  We had “goths” and “punks” and “preps” and all different types you could think of – primarily expressed through clothing.  I have always been a big supporter of allowing students to wear what they want (a discussion of uniforms is a blog post for another time).  However, we had boundaries.  Clothing that referenced drugs, derogatory terms, or explicit language were not allowed in order to create a safe environment for all students.  Once students reach college, they are effectively adults and revel in the freedom to come and go as they please and wear whatever they like, but what happens when students don’t consider the impact of their clothing on those around them?

While lecturer Silos-Rooney is opposed to dress codes (as am I), I think she raises some great points about the nature of decorum expressed through clothing and especially in the classroom.  When does clothing cross the line from self-expression into inappropriate and what can educators do about it?  Should educators even take action on it at all?

Further reading:

Student Bodies by Jill Silos-Rooney

Too Hot to Teach in Dress Codes

Sexy Profs Suffer Career Setbacks: Report

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