She came up to the podium before class began, as I was gathering my notes and putting on my game face for the 80-minute lecture I was about to deliver. Centered on a simple question having to do with proper citation form, our conversation was brief. But I have never forgotten it, for it altered my vision of the contemporary classroom in a way I'm still figuring out how to deal with.
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 a historian of civil liberties and a proponent of freedom of expression, I'm certainly not a prude, and by no means modest or reserved myself. But I never thought I'd confront near-nudity in the classroom—at least, not outside of historical footage. And my students apparently didn't either, because the two-minute conversation I had with that female student at the front of the room created a hush you could hear throughout the building.
At first I wasn't sure why everyone's eyes were glued lustfully to the front of the room. Could it be the fascinating outline of my lecture on the blackboard, with its timeline of the creation of NATO? Or was it me, my usual black turtleneck covering enough skin to qualify me for the Miss Dowdy Victorian pageant? Perhaps it was my knee-high stockings, provocatively gathered in rolls about my ankles, or the glint in the lens of my eyeglasses betraying my secret weakness for documentaries not produced by Ken Burns? Could the students sense my wild side?
Soon enough I realized that all eyes in the classroom were riveted upon the Hefnerian vision hovering before me. The female students were focused on her, too, but in a different way from the men: Some of them rolled their eyes and cast snarky glances at one another. Others merely looked upon her with heartbreaking hopelessness.
With every bone in my body I had to fight the urge to throw my jacket around her and shout, "For God's sake, woman, put something on!" Partly it was out of concern for her, but I have to admit—hey, this was my show: I'm supposed to be the star. I hold the key to knowledge, to the infinite mystery of the past ... and to these students' grades. I'll be damned if contemporary fashion is going to steal my thunder.
Certainly clothing has always been a source of dissension and debate in the modern classroom: long hair, bell-bottoms, lurid phrases on T-shirts, safety pins through noses—kids will be kids, we sigh. Male students are just as influenced by fashion as women. The popular style of low-slung jeans revealing wildly patterned boxer shorts has been around for a few years now and seems here to stay. Slouching across campus in their oversized outfits, these men could be malnourished escapees from some hipster chain gang, desperately trying to make sure their pants stay on—but not too on.
The problem here is that I don't want to know what kind of underwear my students wear—or don't wear. And I really don't want to see all those Y-shaped G-strings rising from the butt-cracks of my female students as they bend down to pick up their 50-pound designer purses.
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.
Let me be clear: I'm opposed to dress codes and other codified ways of enforcing conformity. After all, I'm a woman whose fashion choices in college were dictated by my obsessive following of the Grateful Dead and alternative politics: I once wore a full-length flannel nightgown to a final exam I had studied for all night long, and showed up for a biology exam barefoot, with bells dangling from my ankles, ears, and hips.
But I think it's our job as teachers to make students self-conscious of their choices, to present them with opportunities to challenge mainstream standards. I would hope that my female students can realize their potential beyond the predetermined worth that has been placed on them by our sexualized culture, with its limited conceptions of the role and value of women.
In the end, I decided that the best way to do this is to teach them about subjects that matter, that point out the value of self-analysis and self-respect.
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.
I just hope they don't trip on their stilettos and kill themselves before they get the chance.