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April 26, 2004



Funny, because I was just talking about that with some classmates of mine today. There's this area of campus that is really grassy, and often on nice days like this professors take small discussion classes outside. But this afternoon, these girls show up in bikinis, lay down their beach towels next to us, and start greasing up. And everyone looks, and everyone is embarrassed, and the people with dignity are trying so hard to act like they don't notice, but there it is, in your face, in a place it doesn't belong.

It doesn't in any way shame the human body to respect group dynamics. I don't think people dress like that for any reason other than to compete, as you alluded to. Then other girls start to play the "who gets looked at more/longer" game, and we're in the race to the bottom again.

In fact, most girls I know who have beautiful bodies and self-esteem try not to wear distracting clothes, because on them, a little bit of sexy goes a lot further than miles of skin on someone who's desperate for attention.

Look, I'm a big fan of physical self-expression. But there's a difference between someone who I see wearing something on skimpy side with self-confidence and style and some girl who just joins the parade of platform thongs and minis in an attempt to say, "I can play this game, too, guys!"


A bit off topic, but your post made me think of my roommate, who is a second grade teacher at a private religious school. Now she happens to be one of the most physically attractive women i've ever known, and she does like to show a lot of skin. But she has enough sense to dress appropriately conservatively for work, which is a good thing with kids that age. i was with her in a mall when we ran into one of her older colleagues and the lady didn't even recognize Betty. It was an uncomfortable moment because Betty's colleague was obviously taken aback by my roommate's attire (or lack of), but didn't want to say anything, and Betty seemed a bit embarrassed too. i was afraid she'd get reprimanded but apparently she didn't.


excellent post, hugo. Thanks.


Hugo - I think your entry makes some great points. I myself believe that women should be free to dress the way they want, as long as they are dressing for themselves, and not for men. Unfortunately (as another post has pointed out here), a large number of women who dress provacatively have a need for self-affirmation through their image. I never really noticed any instance like you've noted in any of the classes I took. Although - there was one gal whose sister designed her clothes, and with her in class, it was hard to concentrate (they were always bright and somewhat scary). But that's another story! The only outfit I could count on people wearing in classes I took were their pajamas.


The thing is, though it sounds infantilizing, I don't think many of my younger students can easily distinguish between "dressing for themselves" and "dressing for men". When pressed, I have heard women in very revealing clothing insist that they hadn't the slightest intention of attracting attention.

I also think that culture and class play a role here. What strikes me as fascinating is that the most provocative dress in school is worn by women of working-class backgrounds... women dress far more revealingly here at the community college than they do at nearby Pomona College (where I often visit), which is a private, secular, affluent liberal arts campus. I'm on dangerous ground here, but there is stuff worth exploring.

Russell Arben Fox

Another great post, Hugo. Don't be scared off by the concern about "infantilizing" your students. The simple hard truth is that the students in your care may be in some ways already adults, but in some even more important ways they are not--they are likely not yet (and here is where class comes into play) fully aware of, much less capable of responding to, the way in which the market has permeated female bodily "affirmation" and all too often turned it into something which is, at its roots, primarily about selling oneself (and especially, as you perceptively note, "out-selling" the competition, i.e. other female students). Of course, one could extend this to the culture at large: there has been a broad turn, by women as well as men, towards self-indulgence and immature self-fulfillment, and away from collective concern. But that's a constant in all societies, I suppose. What is particularly pernicious today is the way that indulgence ends up celebrating the "affirmation" of female availability, equating provocation with control.


Oh, what a great comment, Russell -- your last two sentences are superb. Wish I had thought of 'em. Thank you thank you!


Hugo, I was actually about to make that exact point. I went to a certain affluent private university in Chicago, and cannot think of a single time where I found myself distracted in class by another girl's attire (or lack thereof). Meanwhile, a dear friend of mine teaches English and writing at a community college just down the road, and often expresses frustration that the excessive thong-flashiing makes it really hard for him to keep the class focused on English and writing.

I also believe that there are definitely some culturally-founded differences in fashion. I'm trying to think of some specific examples that won't alienate everyone, because you're right - it is a sensitive issue. I'll get back to you.


Two quick points:

#1 - It's partly a question of manners, isn't it? Flopping your bikini-clad body down next to a study group and oiling yourself up is just bad manners. There was a time when youngsters were taught about that kind of thing, but everyone's too afraid of going over the PC-line these days.

#2 - Just to be the odd one out, let me say that I don't think there's anything inherently wrong in women dressing to please men. I've been known to do so myself and it has nothing to do with poor self-esteem. Quite the contrary. Dressing to please others might be one symptom of a deeper problem, but I don't like to see it dismissed as some kind of evil in itself. (For instance, NOT sunbathing next to a class group might constitute dressing to please the (male) instructor who prefers that his class concentrate on what he's saying.)


Good point, Anne -- but there is obviously some value to acknowledging "time,place, and manner." Dressing to please men might be perfectly appropriate for a night out at the club; the same attire deeply inappropriate for a classroom setting.


Anne, that would make sense if we had class on the beach. Also, my professor is female. It is a question of manners, but we're looking at motivations here, too. Why would you wear something so alarmingly out of place, so obviously distracting -- especially in a classroom? To make up for an inability to get attention with your mind?

Yes, maybe it's trying to make up for lack of quality with lots of quantity (not all skins are equal). But that kind of in-your-face desperation is not only rude, inappropriate, and contributing to the further physicalization of femininity. It's flat-out sad.

Daniel Marquez

Hugo, I am beginning to feel a bit nostalgic. I say this because I REALLY miss both your Euro-History and Gender studies class. However, I remember you once mentioned to us that the classroom would be much more at ease if everyone would come to class dressed in casual vestment. The reason for it was to prevent males from scrutinizing as you’ve mentioned and ogling at the women who come to class in need of attention. I feel I have to comment o this because a few of my female friends have mentioned to me that they enjoy being teasers and are pleased by the responses they get from their peers. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that this lady who was tardy caused all this commotion.

Now, after taking your gender studies class I must say that without a doubt you have changed my whole perspective on women. Since then, I have become much more critical of how I interact with women. Aside from that, I am proud to admit that I no longer feel the need to feast my eyes on someone who is disruptive and a nuisance to the class. Unfortunately, this does change the classroom dynamic and believe me, it does happen quite often.


I just wanted to share a personal experience of mine about how clothing can affect the atmosphere of a school.

My high school, unlike almost all other public schools in Canada at the time (and to this day) had a uniform. It was not a very strict uniform because the point of the uniform was not to make everyone look the same, or even to make people dress 'modestly'; rather, the uniform was intended to promote equality and respect among the students and compensate for class differences among us.

Every month my schoo had grub days, where we could wear our regular clothes. We paid a dollar for the privilege, and on those days the tone of the school changed completely. Some teachers mentioned that they were afraid to come to school on those days, that they dreaded them, or that they felt unsafe.

And these teachers were not 'uptight' or out of touch with young people - most of them were in their twenties, all had great relationships with most of their students. One of our school policies was that all teachers were addressed by their first names.

The change from uniform to 'grubs' was not a change from unrevealing clothes to revealing ones - plenty of girls had their skirts hemmed short and rolled up at the waist, plenty of girls wore flip-flops or heels with the uniform, and most girls wore tank tops or strapless tube tops under their unbuttoned uniform shirts.

I don't know why wearing our uniforms created such an environment of safety, or why it was broken when we wore regular clothes, but ever since I have been a definite supporter of uniforms in public school at all levels.


I'm so happy I stumbled across you, Hugo! I'll definitely have to come back and read some more when I have time - and peace and quiet - enough to concentrate. Just wanted to comment that I do often dress to please men - well, one man, my husband - and pleasing him pleases me.

Not all the time, obviously. I'm not a surrendered wife by any means. But making him happy (and yes, I know, I can't MAKE anyone feel anything, or so I've been told) is one of the things in my life that's important to me, because I love him.

He loves my body, especially my bust and my legs, and I delight in wearing snug tops and short skirts because I know he'll love looking at me. Mind you, we're talking Friday-night-at-a-small-Texas-redneck-biker-bar clothes here. Don't wear my snug shirts & short skirts during the week when it's mom-and-toddlers-playdate-at-the-mall-food-court day. I have some sense of modesty.

My husband (five years & two children) looking at me that way makes me feel more beautiful, and oh I know some people must be gasping in horror when they read that, but it's true. If it's a sign of low self-esteem then oh well, shame on me, I guess. Don't make me feel worse by giving me a hard time about it. That would just make me feel worse, and that wouldn't help that self-image none, would it?

All I know is that the loving attention I get from him when I dress to please his eye makes me feel better about myself. And of course he does gives me that attention in lots of other ways more politically correct, but damn it if I don't perk up just a touch more when he looks me up and down and shakes his head ever so slightly and smiles.

So let me enjoy this. Because what's happening is that I am passing this love affair with my body stuff on to my daughters.

And I'm hoping that just maybe - if they grow up seeing me loving and accepting, and yes even sometimes proudly displaying, my body as a result of this "fake" self-esteem - they will be able to take that self-acceptance one step further than I did, who took it one step further than my mother did.

May they grow up to be two of those blessed girls or women that don't need that extra boost to love themselves, by themselves. I'll fake it so they can make it.

Sorry to ramble on so.

play the ball, not the...

Why don't you all just focus on your work and relieve yourselves of the burden of making long-winded, mindless, critical analyses of other people's dress sense, whereby you project your own bias and prejudice onto others, with whom you have some kind of 'beef'. Very Sanctimonious.
This article is thinly veiled gossip masquerading as political discourse.


So, did I score any points for my choice in sisterhood attire for the day??


I live in smalltown USA and I own a small shop that sells various things - including clothing. Dressy, sometimes a little racy clothing. Despite the fact that basic country fare is jeans and a t-shirt and I get lots of glares when I walk down the street dressed in the fashions I sell. I almost feel like I'm on a mission to tell these women, "Hey,you don't have to look unisex! You've got different parts - celebrate it!" Church groups publicly pray for me, women herd their husbands away, and men turn to babbling idiots while trying to do business with me. While I'm in this town. But in the nearby city, I fade into the woodwork. It's interesting to see how place makes such a difference. And by the way - business is booming. And most of the sexy clothes are bought up by locals, not tourists! In fact, since I introduced this line, the clothes are now my number one bestseller, taking the place of jewelry. Now that's a spin I didn't expect. Thoughts?



I'm also in "smalltown USA," in central Texas. And yes, basic fare is jeans and t-shirt. But there are an awful lot of women going back to dresses, too. I'm one of the women who *used* to wear the type of clothing you describe, but no longer feel a need to. On occasion, I consider getting one of those dresses from "back then" out of the closet. But my husband finds me just as attractive, maybe more so, now that I wear more modest clothing. Just a different perspective on it.


I think this would not be much of a problem were it not for the question of "sexual harassment." If a woman is going to dress in a sexually provocative manner, then does she have a right to complain if men (or other women) stare at her?

I was up at one of the UC campuses a while ago on some business on a hot spring day. One of the lawns was covered with bikini-clad female students. If one's fervid imagination could envision the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire's seraglio you'd get the picture.

Now, supposing a male professor were to take a photo of this spectacle and then post it in his office. Would women have a right to complain that this photo was "sexual harassment"?

There is a very real issue here. Are women only to be allowed to exhibit their sexuality, not men?


Firstly, I'd like to say once again - I agree with much of what you say here Hugo, and your own experiences reflect my own - but I'd like to expand on that :- inappropriate, deliberately sexually provocative clothing is just an unwanted distraction **in any situation** where it is not asked for (I think nightclubs and places like that are suitable exceptions).

Hugo, you'd shake your head if someone said to you 'ahh, Schwyzer, keep it in your pants and get on with teaching' (or words to that effect) if you had visibly lost your concentration in the situation you described. We know that we are stimulated by visuals in a 'hardwired' kind of way - to the extent that the girl in your example can create a tension in your class just from her clothing. For me, in all except possibly nightclubs, I see this kind of clothing as inappropriate because of the unwanted distraction it brings. Believe me, I don't want that kind of distraction. For a man, it's almost a kind of mental harrassment.

I think this would not be much of a problem were it not for the question of "sexual harassment." If a woman is going to dress in a sexually provocative manner, then does she have a right to complain if men (or other women) stare at her?

Exactly Alexander - I think what we're seeing in this thread is the acknowledgement that this kind of clothing (mini skirts, crop-tops etc) is distracting. We're supposed to pretend we don't see it, but of course we do.


Check out my response on the look issue here:







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