After a college student at Cornell University in New York was asked to dress more conservatively in class, she responded by taking her clothes off.
While Letitia Chai was previewing her thesis to professors -- “Reimagining the Refugee-Host Country Relationship: Tibetans and India” -- one of them suggested her shorts were too short for a thesis presentation. Cornell declined to comment for this story.
So, on the day the international student formally presented her thesis in May 2018, she broadcast the event on Facebook Live, and streamed her protest and presentation for 37 minutes in her underwear.
“Mom and dad … hello,” she said to her parents who were watching in Korea, before explaining why she believed a woman’s clothing should not dictate the conversation about who she is.
“How much longer do we need to put up with this nonsense … of being put down and being made to feel less because of someone else’s words and perceptions?” Chai asked, sounding defiant and exasperated at various times.
Social media response was quick. Chai’s livestream garnered 266,000 views, more than 3,000 reactions and nearly 650 shares.
Among the detractors, they called Chai childish, mixed up and “stupid.”
“Grow up Chai and become professional. Your professor did you the biggest favor of your life by trying to teach you professional dress. Unfortunately you believe you are a gift to the world as opposed to thinking what you can give to the world,” wrote Lori Shecter, whose post garnered 216 reactions, most giving it a "thumbs up" in agreement.
“Left or right, doesn't matter. In a professional environment you need to look and act professional. Sadly if you did this for a job interview or at work, you would only be making a fool of yourself,” wrote Nicole Morrison, whose post received 23 reactions, again, mostly in agreement.
Advocates, however, labeled her righteous, inspirational and brave.
“She is no more exposed than if she wore a swimsuit, so you can stop pretending to be shocked. I applaud this young woman's bravery,” wrote Larry Greene, whose post received 108 reactions and 23 responses, mostly in agreement, but with some virulent opposition.
“She's wearing more than many girls and women wear at the beach. I really don't get why this is upsetting to so many people,” Becca Spivey responded.
While many of the commenters said they would be distracted by what women wear in the classroom, an academic who has studied visual sexual stimuli and who reviewed Chai’s livestream, said titillation is not the issue here.
“I don't see how this is related to sexual stimuli, but it is related to social conventions,” said Kim Wallen, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroendocrinology at Emory University in Atlanta. “I think there is an important point in that women are asked and are concerned about what constitutes ‘professional dress.’
“While the woman's dress was not particularly sexy, it was unconventional, which was the issue she was trying to address,” Wallen wrote in an email. “Whether there is a need for conventional professional dress is not resolved, but there can be little doubt that the issue puts more pressure on women than it does men and is a burden that may affect women's academic performance."
A new study, to be published in November, from the Center for Talent Innovation says among the top opinions given for why women are not put into more leadership roles is “appearance -- looking polished and pulled together.”
The research included 18 focus groups, nearly 4,000 college graduate professionals, and more than 50 interviews with high-level executives.
“Notable appearance blunders, not surprisingly, are unkempt attire (83% say it detracts from a woman’s [executive presence], 76% say it detracts from a man’s) and, for women, too-tight or provocative clothing (73% say it detracts from a woman’s [executive presence),” according to the center's press release.
Wallen, of Emory University, said questions about how men dress are rarely raised in academia.
“In my 40 years as a professor, I can't recall having a discussion about dress with a male, but I have had many with women, always initiated by the woman. This is another example of ‘gender load,’ special concerns or actions, that primarily affect one gender (usually women)," he said, adding that the 15 Ph.D. candidates he advises are women.