Richmond, KY: Where the tolerance level is shorter than the dresses

Elizabeth's picture

It appears the tolerance level of her neighbors was shorter than her dress. When 20-year old Kymberly Clem went to the Richmond Mall* wearing a dress she had bought there the day before, she apparently seemed too attractive to be allowed to stay. She was approached by a security guard who humiliated her and forced her to leave because he said that several women had complained to him that their husbands were staring at her. (For the basics, see these stories in the Richmond Register and Fox News. The Fox story includes a photo of the dress.)

If we accept the facts as reported in the Richmond Register then there are all kinds of things wrong here. First of all, if these women's husbands were staring at Clem so much as to cause a noticeable disruption for their wives, who then complained to a security guard, why was his reaction not - as someone suggested on the body-positivity forum Going Braless (membership required to post) - to ask Clem if she was being made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by the leering men? Why did the women not complain to their husbands if the husbands' behavior was the problem? Why did the security guard feel like their request was valid? And given that he did cave in to the requests of a few unhappy customers, why did he then proceed to humiliate Clem by staring at her, asking her to turn around slowly, and eventually following her out of the mall? It is beyond disturbing that a woman should be asked to leave a place because men are allegedly leering at her, and worse to then be subjected to the leering gaze of the one asking her to leave. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say this begins to feel like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The story is representative of dangerous trends in the U.S. Remember Kyla Ebbert who last year was threatened with being kicked off her Southwest Airlines flight because her skirt was too short? Or Setara Qassim who was told to cover herself with a blanket if she wanted to stay on her flight? Then there are writers like Wendy Shalit of Girls Gone Mild and Ariel Levy (author of Female Chauvinist Pigs) and Pamela Paul. These writers legitimize the censorious intolerance of those who would tell women how they must dress and who would shame them for dressing in ways that are considered erotic or sexy, or simply in ways that are cool and comfortable.

This all matters for the sake of individual freedom of expression in dress. It also matters for the sake of freedom of expression in media. The whole "community standards" test for obscenity and indecency depends on being able to identify those standards somehow. If this vocal minority has it's way, and wins often enough, it begins to seem like they are the only ones with standards and values and morals. The rest of us need to be much more vocal in support of our values: body-positivity, self-confidence, love, compassion, diversity, freedom, creativity. We need to be out there daily pushing back at the vocal minority. We cannot allow the shame around bodies to continue as "standard."

There may be a lot of skin on display in much of the country but we are constantly apologizing for it, and that must stop. As JanieBelle blogged at her place, you see it even in the responses in defense of Ms. Clem. Her sister, in talking about how out of hand this has gotten says that the skirt might have been short but it didn't show her buttocks (as if then bad behavior on the part of other mallgoers would somehow be acceptable) and a blogger is quoted in the Richmond Register story saying “It was short, but showed nothing that is illegal to show. Personally, I’ve seen worse on Eastern’s campus than what this young lady was wearing.” It's subtle, but words like "worse" give the impression that body display is bad and that while this dress might be less bad than another, it still isn't really okay.

The laws in the United States about decency and bodies are reminiscent of geometry lessons. This proportion of the breast must be covered or that proportion of the buttocks. You need a protractor to figure it out. And it is different from state to state. We have cousins visiting from the Netherlands and I was teasing their teenage sons (16 and 18), who didn't want to go to the beach with the adults. I said "But there will be girls there, in bikinis!" (They'd been admiring some of the young women working at a restaurant where we'd eaten the day before.) Their dad said to me, "but they can see girls naked on the beaches at home." Part of the message was "why do you people feel so strange about your bodies?!" (Of course it could be argued that covering a bit of the body makes it more enticing, and that the real "problem" with Ms. Clem's dress was that it covered just enough to be very erotic, and that being erotic is somehow negative.)

We are a pluralistic nation with a great deal of diversity. Standards of dress vary tremendously across groups. It should not be acceptable for one group to impose its standards on another group. It should certainly not be acceptable for members of a group to shame others in public places.

*Richmond, population approximately 32,000, is just southeast of Lexington, KY.

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