Student presents thesis in underwear to resist 'oppression'

A Cornell University student presented her honors thesis in her undergarments to stand against “discrimination and oppression” after her professor questioned the appropriateness of wearing “short-shorts” to give a presentation.

The professor’s intent was to point out following professional standards in certain speaking situations, as 11 of the 14 students in the class attested.

When the professor asked what her mother would think of her short shorts, the student retorted that her mother is a "Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor" who "would be fine" with it.

A Cornell University student presented her honors thesis while wearing only her undergarments last week in an effort to stand against “oppressive beliefs and discrimination.”

Letitia Chai conducted her presentation on May 5 as a response to an earlier incident in which her Acting in Public professor Rebekah Maggor questioned the appropriateness of her attire in class. About half of the attendees stripped to boxers and bras in solidarity, The Cornell Daily Sun reported.

In a May 2 Facebook post, Chai recounted wearing a “long-sleeve blue button-down shirt and denim cut-offs.” She then noted that she was in “disbelief” when the professor criticised her outfit.  

“When I got up to start, my professor said: ‘Is that really what you would wear?’” Chai wrote. “She, a white woman, continued: ‘Your shorts are too short.’”

“The professor proceeded to tell me, in front of my whole class, that I was inviting the male gaze away from the content of my presentation and onto my body,” the student recounted. “She said I was making a statement by wearing my outfit. I told her that I sure as hell wouldn’t change my statement to make her or anyone else feel more comfortable.”

[RELATED: Conference drops ‘unacceptable’ dress code after profs complain]

The post also took issue with an international student who was present during the class and who appeared to defend the professor’s remarks.

“Then, an international student (man) said that I should have more respect for the audience and that it was a moral obligation to dress more conservatively,” she wrote. “Needless to say, I was shook.”

According to Chai, Maggor explained that her intentions were coming from a mother’s concern, which Chai proudly dismissed by stressing that her mother “is a Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor,” and would not be concerned with her outfit.

“I think my mother would be fine with my shorts,” she wrote.

[RELATED: Education scholar: ‘Middle class’ dress codes are white privilege]

In an interview with the Daily Sun, Maggor pointed out that she also asked a student in another section of her class to remove a cap from his head to follow the dress policy.

According to the course syllabus, students were required to dress “appropriately for the persona you will present.”

“For example, how would you dress for a specific job interview?” The document reads. “How would you dress when introducing a famous speaker at a particular conference? How would you dress to give a speech at a protest rally?”

Eleven of the 14 students in the class felt that Chai’s post did not represent the entire situation fairly. In a joint letter, the students recounted that the professor’s comment “was a means of noting the importance of professionalism in certain public speaking situations.” 

The letter goes on to explain that the professor repeatedly apologized for her word choice and agreed that the “notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carry a lot of cultural and political baggage.”

[RELATED: Conference drops ‘unacceptable’ dress code after profs complain]

Many of the students acknowledged that they were afraid to speak against Chai’s post because of “social media’s tendency to radically conform to one narrative and to portray situations in black and white.” 

According to the document, the three students who did not sign the letter included Chai, the international student, and a student who was absent on the day of the incident.

On Monday, Chai also shared an email exchange with the Chair of the Performing Media Arts, Nick Salvato, in which the official promised that diversity, equity, and inclusion training for faculty will “continue this semester, as well as next semester and beyond.”

Maggor did not immediately respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @neetu_chandak