Letitia Chai’s senior thesis presentation started out normally enough. But within three minutes, Chai had stripped down to her underwear.
The college student’s act became a viral talking point on the internet, fueling an already raging debate about what women and girls are expected to wear in the classroom. Increasingly, students are calling out their school dress codes, often arguing that they force women and girls to change their behavior to avoid distracting boys and men.
Chai stripped to her undergarments because, she told the Cornell Daily Sun, her professor, Rebekah Maggor, had told her earlier in the week that the cutoff shorts she was wearing for a trial run of the presentation were “too short” and would draw “men’s attention” away from her words. (Maggor says she doesn’t tell students what to wear.)
In the version of the presentation Chai live-streamed on Facebook, she talked about solidarity with others who have been asked to change “our appearance, for the comfort of others.”
“The only question that this has led me to ask is how much longer we need to put up with this nonsense,” Chai said.
“Is that really what you would wear?”
Chai told the Sun that when she presented her thesis wearing shorts and a button-down shirt, Maggor asked her, “Is that really what you would wear?” She then said the shorts were too short, that Chai was making a “statement” with her clothing, and that her outfit would draw “men’s attention” away from her presentation. After a male student said she had a “moral obligation” to dress conservatively, Chai left the room.
Outside, she told the Sun that Maggor spoke to her again, asking what her mother would think of her attire. Chai’s response: “My mom is a feminist, gender, and sexuality studies professor. She’s fine with my shorts.”
Chai then stripped down to her bra and underwear, went back into the room, and gave her presentation.
Maggor has not responded to Vox’s inquiries about the class, and Chai has declined to comment.
“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Maggor told the Sun. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”
“The majority of us are students of color, from multiethnic backgrounds, who very much relate to Letitia’s frustration with systemic oppression that is part of the fabric of this country,” the students wrote. However, they said, “aspects of the Facebook post she made detailing Wednesday’s incident do not align with our collective agreement of how events transpired that day and the intentions behind them.”
The students said that Maggor regularly asked male and female students questions about proper clothing for public speaking. They also wrote that the professor apologized to the class after Chai left the room, “acknowledging that the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage.”
”Our professor has consistently been a source of empowerment for all of the students, but especially for the women in this course,” the students wrote.
Still, even their account of events describes what sounds like a troubling situation: a full-class discussion focusing on an individual student’s clothing choices. “Our professor acknowledged the discomfort of speaking overtly about attire and perception, especially for women, and encouraged us to share our thoughts and opinions,” they wrote. “Students began discussing their beliefs on the matter. Letitia became visibly upset by our professor’s earlier comments, and after one male international student’s comment (mentioned in her post), she left the room.”
On May 5, the Saturday following the class, Chai gave a live-streamed version of her presentation in a conference room in Cornell’s Physical Sciences Building, in which she invited attendees to strip along with her. According to the Sun, 28 of the 44 people in attendance joined her in removing their clothes.
The stripping incident is part of a bigger controversy
Chai’s presentation has attracted widespread media coverage — and some criticism. Robby Soave of Reason asked whether her conduct might be a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, on campus. “Overzealous compliance with the Obama-era Education Department’s broad interpretation of Title IX has prompted campus authorities to discourage gendered salutations, investigate professors for writing controversial essays, and give failing grades to students who made harmless comments,” Soave wrote. “One can easily imagine administrators going after a student who not only took off her clothes in class but encouraged others to do the same.”
Asked about the issue, a spokesperson for Cornell’s Title IX office told Soave, “The Office of the Title IX Coordinator does not opine on whether an individual’s reported conduct ‘could ... be a Title IX infraction on its own.’”
Meanwhile, the controversy over Chai’s presentation takes place at a time of heightened attention both to student protests — sometimes characterized on the right as oversensitive and dangerous to free speech — and to school dress codes, especially those that stigmatize female students. In April, Florida high school student Lizzy Martinez said school officials made her put Band-Aids over her nipples after she came to school with no bra under her shirt. Her story inspired a nationwide “bracott.” And female students at a Chicago charter school recently won the right to replace their khaki uniform pants with black ones that better conceal period stains.
School dress codes and their enforcement often have sexist underpinnings, high school student Elizabeth Love wrote for Vox earlier this year: “Administrators argue that if a high school girl’s skirt is too short or her shoulders are exposed, the boys won’t be able to focus. This concern is outdated and puritanical.”
“It is not the woman’s responsibility to ensure she doesn’t inadvertently arouse the men around her,” Love continued. “Billboards, commercials, and magazines featuring women showing skin will continue to exist and real women will march on, whether boys can focus or not.”
In her live-streamed presentation, Chai said that since she made her initial Facebook post, she’d heard from many others with similar experiences “of being put down and being made to feel less because of someone else’s words and perceptions.”
She asked her audience “to take this next step — or rather, this next strip — in our movement, and to join me in revealing to each other, and to seeing each other, for who we truly are: members of the human race.”