Special Issue: Dress Practices as Embodied Multimodal Rhetoric
Katie Manthey, Salem College
When I was in graduate school I became interested in the ways that bodies became “professionalized” through clothing. After experiencing both positive and (very) negative reactions to my dress practices on the job market, I started a digital gallery called Dress Profesh. The site’s purpose is to showcase how dress codes are socially constructed in ways that further marginalize people who are cisgender, heterosexual, able bodied, middle class, white men.
When I became the director of the writing center at Salem College, a small women’s college in North Carolina, I found myself in a position of power. My staff (mostly cis women) looked to me to dictate what was professional in the writing center. I remember our first staff meeting, looking out at them and seeing curves, lots of exposed skin, and clothes that were more than simply casual–conservative folks would probably label them as “club attire.”
My first, subconscious-driven impulse was to tell them all to cover up. Don’t they know this is a place of business? What if other people are uncomfortable by their visible bodies? No one is going to take us seriously if we look like this.
And then I realized that none of this was actually happening: there were no clients in the writing center to be either uncomfortable or critical of our abilities. And this wasn’t a business–this was a peer-centered space. What the students were wearing wasn’t impacting anything other than my own subconscious hold on sexist ideas about acceptability. Honestly: what’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t intervene here? Wouldn’t I be doing more harm than good if I squashed the culture of our writing center before it had a chance to unfurl?
So, I told the staff that this was their writing center and that they were each in charge of how it would operate and what it would become. As a staff, we came up with the following dress code, which is still in place three years later:
Dress in a way that honors your body, your mental health, and the space around you.
Yes, this is slippery. There are no hard and fast rules. But many “professional” dress codes don’t actually have hard and fast rules–there are usually vague overtures to “looking appropriate” and “businesslike” while not being “too revealing.” Instead of using these old tropes–which have come to be placeholders for patriarchal ideas of acceptable bodies–we created our own, using concepts that were more personally relevant to the students. My plan was that if (when?) someone complained I would talk with them privately about how they felt and why they felt that way. My hope was that I could get to the implicit bias that undergirds most people’s negative reactions to other people’s appearance.
You might be thinking that this sounds terrifying and very uncomfortable–and even potentially unsafe for the people involved. When a person lodges a complaint about someone’s appearance, it’s a specific moment where someone is asking for information and resolution: a teachable moment. In this moment, I believe it’s the role of the director (or whoever is handling the complaint) to be able to articulate why the complaint is coming from a larger cultural context of oppression and to help the person who filed the complaint to unpack their internal biases. It’s also the job of that person to talk to the consultant about the relationship between their body, the space, and other people. Ideally, these conversations could happen at the same time.
One thing that I would like to offer to help with this moment is the idea of “ethical reading” (Manthey p.70). Ethical reading is built on the idea that when we look at other people, we often make snap judgments about them based on appearance without actually knowing anything about them. This way of subconsciously judging people based on appearance is unethical–and the opposite action, “ethical reading,” asks people to acknowledge their biases as biases in the moment and hold space for judgment. In the case of a client complaining about a consultant’s appearance, this would be a moment to talk about implicit sexism, classism, racism, etc., while also acknowledging that there are many different ways appearance can be “read”–it probably wasn’t the tutor’s intent to make people feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been zero dress code complaints in my writing center since I started in 2015.
I say “unsurprisingly” because the staff are explicitly trained to think rhetorically. They know that their bodies are always being read by multiple audiences in a variety of contexts that they don’t have control over. They know this. I need to trust them. Ultimately, I am their ally and their mentor, not their mother.
For people who say, “yeah, well, we need to be training our tutors for the real world where there are actual dress codes,” I say–that’s exactly the point. We need to train our tutors (and clients, whenever we can) to be able to recognize the implicit biases inside dress codes–wherever they may be. Eventually, when our tutors are in positions of power and can make the dress code wherever they work, they will be able to make one that is not racist, cis/sexist, sizeist, classist, ageist, ableist, etc…or abolish it altogether.
(Anti) Dress Code Training
You might be thinking that this sounds great, but wondering about the logistical steps of starting and managing these conversations in your writing center. One way to approach this work is to have explicit trainings that are anti-dress code. For example, a unit on professional dress (which might be included in a tutor training course or done in an orientation or staff meeting) might work as follows:
- Examine dress codes as a cultural practice (you can find links to some helpful information at Dress Profesh)
- Research dress codes in other writing centers
- Reflect on what a useful dress code would be for each individual consultant
- Think/pair/share ideas about what a useful dress code would be for the group
Ultimately, a dress code should be something that reflects the cultural context and values of the group that agrees to abide by it. This means that it’s a living, breathing thing–and that a good dress code is something that is talked about regularly.
The pieces in this special issue address the place of dress codes in writing centers from a variety of perspectives. For example, both the pieces by Naydan et al and Herman and Herman discuss the relationship between dress and power, while Hansen and Carrobis focus specifically on size and gender. Drolette looks at how clothing is part of the space and culture of his writing center, while Leudtke talks about the impact of military uniforms in the writing center at her military college. Finally, this special issue ends with a piece written by an undergraduate student who was brave enough to speak up and speak back to policies that disconnected her from her identity and her body, at the very real risk of her job.
The pieces in this collection have been chosen and edited by undergraduate members of the staff of the Salem College Writing Center from 2015-present:
Cynthia Suryawan is a queer and trans student with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, who is currently working on a Master’s degree in Statistics. In addition to utilizing their math degree, they are interested in also pursuing writing and are currently working on screenplays. During their undergrad, they were a volunteer writing consultant for the Writing Center after completing a semester-long internship.
Shea Bove began working on this project while pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in English and Communication. She currently works in the world of multimedia publishing. She spent a good portion of her undergraduate career within the walls of the Salem College Writing Center as a consultant. She encourages others to remember that creating an environment where the writer feels comfortable, welcomed, and seen leads to a more confident writer than solely correcting their grammar and formatting ever will.
Shannon Henesy contributed to this project during her senior year at Salem College, before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing. She tutored at the Salem College Writing Center for three years. She is a recent graduate of the Rhetoric and Composition Master’s program at North Carolina State University, and is currently working with a New York-based editorial company and pursuing a career in editing. For fellow consultants, she recommends prioritizing the creation of a dialogue with clients above anything else.
Rachel Ballard became involved with this project while working towards her bachelor’s in Creative Writing. She worked as a consultant at the Salem College Writing Center throughout her time at Salem and became interested in this project when the idea was proposed. She is currently using her bachelor’s degree to work as an English tutor and regularly uses her unique skill set in professional and creative writing to help students succeed. The most important advice she can offer to consultants would be to remember the struggles of the clients as other human beings and to use this perspective as a way to help others become better writers.
Sammy Blazejack assisted with this project while working to obtain her B.A. in Creative Writing at Salem College. Like many of the editors, she worked at the Salem College Writing Center as a consultant where she discovered this amazing opportunity. Currently she works as an administrative assistant for an engineering firm located in Tampa, FL. Sammy hopes to one day write and produce video games for a living. She wishes her fellow consultants the best of luck, and advises them to take deep breaths and focus on the moment at hand.
We look forward to further conversations inspired by the work in the rest of this issue.
Manthey, Katie. (2018). Fat embodiment: The case for ethical reading. The Body and Oppression: Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions. Christine Caldwell and Lucia Bennett Leighton, Eds. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.