“Does anyone know this girl?” “Seriously… name,” and “bahahahahahhahaha,” were all comments posted under a Facebook photo of me in the campus dining hall. The poster captioned the photo status with “In dhall… At 1230… On a Monday….. Wtf.” Within two hours, it had 33 likes and 14 comments.
The week prior, I had been assigned a “Norm Violation” paper topic by my Sociology professor. The paper required me to break a social norm in a public place. We’d recently studied how social roles and expectations rule daily life and are used as a form of social control.
At F&M, Greek organizations dictate nightlife, with four sororities and seven fraternities on campus. Three nights a week, frats host an agreed rotation of registered parties. These parties usually involve a few kegs, drinking games, loud music, and a hot, dark dance floor.
Frat culture encourages girls to dress to sexually impress; tight, bright clothing is a must. While this presentation of self can be fun to dress up for it also creates a sense of competition and judgment between partygoers. Women want to be desired and men want to get laid. If a girl goes for this idea too enthusiastically, she is called an offensive name and judged on her perceived sexual promiscuity and attractiveness.
These judgments are based off clothing: the part of the night everyone sees. But do they really see?
For my norm violation, I decided to bring frat clothing into the light. On Monday, I attended all my classes dressed in tight, bright clothes I would wear to a Saturday night frat party. I sported a small, tight high-waisted skirt, a red crop top, glittery gold shoes, dangly earrings, and makeup with my hair down.
F&M holds more of a “glossy” or polished East Coast look. Students dress up for class or on game days. Many students sport Sperry’s, Longchamp bags, and Marc Jacobs watches. However, at night, these preppy norms crash down and crop tops and short shirts are suddenly acceptable within the dominant frat subculture. My experiment brought a clash of these two worlds of style into broad daylight.
As I walked across Hartman Green that morning, I immediately got feedback that I’d breached an invisible dress code. I received up-down stares and double takes, mostly from girls, that said, “Really? You’re wearing that to class?”
My first professor didn’t notice my outfit and class progressed as usual. The stunned reactions came from students, not from faculty members.
After I left class, I walked to the Dining Hall to increase circulation of my outfit. This idea worked better than I ever could have hoped. As I waited in line for pasta, a girl behind me took a photo of my outfit and uploaded it to Facebook as her status. It began an online gossip commentary literally behind my back. By the time I got out of my second class, the photo had 33 likes and 13 comments.
Clearly I had stepped out of line. This digital reaction and its support show I crossed a boundary that causes discomfort among my peers. My daylight appearance in frat clothing challenged the social control and expectation of the student body. My experiment was real in its consequences and shouted negative feedback.
When I saw the photo, I was fascinated by the reaction and knew it would be a dynamite piece of evidence for my Sociology paper. However, my friends did not have the same reaction. They were angry at the malicious and abusive comments under the original photo. They thought, “What if it weren’t an experiment?” They wanted to defend me and disliked the harsh judgment I was subjected to.
The photo doesn’t show my face. None of the people who liked or commented on the original photo knew whom they were talking about. I am an active member on campus: a student worker, sorority sister, and team captain. Would they have had the same judgment if they knew me? Would they toss the same comments around in person? I think not.
My friends on campus reacted quite differently than the online post. They were quick with genuine compliments of “Hey you look really nice today, what’s the occasion?” which were free of negative judgment.
Friends who know me as a person gave me the benefit of the doubt and knew my dress choice was with good intention. They judge me beyond what I wear. By evening the photo had been taken down. Without the photo, my experiment had the potential to fizzle out without any consequence or confrontation. I was determined to address this digital reaction before it lost momentum.
That night, I posted a screenshot of the original photo and caption as my own Facebook status. To reclaim the conversation, I included an explanation of my paper topic and the reaction it caused. I wanted to take back control of the situation and also to get more feedback about the whole outcome. Was the girl’s post justified or too harsh? What does this say about our college? Are there broader lessons about our generation’s rush to instant judgment and use of the Internet as a tool of uninformed social comment and criticism?
To date, my status has 220 likes, 36 comments, and 5 shares. As soon as I posted it reactions on Facebook exploded; there were over 70 likes in the first half hour. My friends posted solely encouraging and thoughtful comments and digitally shared the idea with their friends. I received congratulatory texts and messages about the success of my experiment. In person friends and students commended me on the confidence and guts it took to challenge such a strictly enforced social norm. I am grateful for the positive support of my experiment and questions.
Out of this, I hope students become more mindful of their actions. I hope students allow each other space for mistakes and give the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to judge off of clothing but each individual measures far beyond what they wear. I hope my experiment causes students to be conscious of their judgments and the actions that follow.