Some very kind and erudite commenters are at work below my Pat Tillman post. Do have a look.
Between classes today, I found myself in the faculty men's room, doing my duty in close proximity to a senior colleague of whom I am fond. "Hey Hugo", he said with a grin, "don't you just love this weather?" I said it was a bit warm for my taste (we hit triple digits in Pasadena this afternoon). "Well", my colleague enthused, "you can't beat what the girls wear!" I kept my mouth shut, thinking about the ancient history class that I had just finished teaching.
A young woman had arrived quite late. She walked into my class in a tiny miniskirt, flip-flops, and what I believe is called a bandeau top. She walked across the room (in front of me and the class) and sat down in the one available seat in the first row. Immediately, the classroom dynamic shifted. We had been talking about Tiberius Gracchus and his brother, but listening to me recount (in detail, thank you) the murders of those two fine Roman tribunes seemed far less interesting to my students than scrutinizing our late arrival. The boys who sat immediately behind her and one seat to her right were absolutely entranced. Two girls in the back row began to whisper furiously, passing a note back and forth with great alacrity, all the while staring with undisguised hostility at the object of all of this attention. Of course, many others were carefully observing me, trying to see if I was "checking out" my scantily-clad student. It was distracting for everyone.
The whole thing left me annoyed. It always does this time of year. What saddens me most is not the fact that my students tend to pay less attention to me in a situation like this one (though I confess that does bother me, naturally), it is that so many people - especially my female students - are left feeling uncomfortable. I'm fond of saying to my women's studies classes that "sisterhood is easier in winter". They laugh, and they get it. When everyone sits in jeans and sweatshirts, when no one's body is on display, all of my students seem more comfortable in their own skin. When the warmer weather comes, and exposed flesh begins to appear in larger splashes and patches, the anxiety level can be palpable! Here at my immensely diverse community college, it is not uncommon for some women to snarl sotto voce "who does she think she is" when they see a fellow student on display. Meanwhile, many of my male students can barely focus on the work before them.
From a feminist perspective, the issue of dress raises (yet again) the old problem of the rights of the community versus the individual's right to self-expression. As with pornography, the neo-liberal argument is rooted in the language of "Freedoms To". From this standpoint, a young woman's freedom to wear what she wants should trump the community's desire to be free from the discomfort to which her near-naked body gives rise. I have no desire to see a dress code imposed in a public community college (trying to design one that would be universally culturally sensitive around this place would be exhausting). But I do recognize that in our culture, rightly or wrongly, revealing dress, sexuality, and self-esteem are inextricably linked. I recognize as well that revealing dress fosters a culture of competition, even among college-aged women, and that competitiveness does irreparable damage to the already fragile bonds of gender solidarity that those of us in this field are working so hard to foster.
I have a colleague who teaches gender studies at a private college; she had her women's studies students design a voluntary dress code for both sexes. It was "processed" and adopted by consensus. I love the idea, but doubt it would work in this far more diverse environment. Still, the idea intrigues me. Both my faith and my feminism teach me that individual desires must always be tempered with a respect for the health of the larger community. It is perhaps important that students be allowed some degree of self-expression in their dress. It is also important that that dress not undermine the cohesiveness and solidarity of the larger community. As feminists, we simultaneously must hold in tension a desire not to shame the female body with a desire not to foster a culture of competitiveness and objectification. We must hold in tension the importance of individual rights of self-expression with the community's right not to be offended. (Too many scoundrels hide behind the old lie that "There is no right not to be offended.") I don't have a perfect solution, but I do think it's worth a good discussion, one without finger-pointing, inflammatory language, or blame.
I know some of my readers are saying right now, "Come off it, Schwyzer, you know danged well you like to look as much as anyone!" It's hard as a man to have any legitimacy on a subject as touchy as this. I've worked damned hard to make certain that I don't ever objectify my students, and I am proud of that work. My credibility in my field, frankly, hinges on it. I am a man, and prone to all that men are prone to. But I can say with complete and utter sincerity that I long for my college to be a place where my students can escape, if only for a little while, the hyper-sexualized, body-obsessed culture of the outside world. Women and men alike deserve that respite.
Bottom line: when winter is here, my classrooms feel like safer places. For everyone.