[because this is potentially relevant, I'm a 37 y/o male]

Being the end of the semester, I've had a bunch of students come to my office hours to ask questions about things I'm responsible for. Among them, there have been a small number of female undergrads that have shown up wearing the kind of clothing that I think is inappropriate for a meeting with a faculty member. I'm not a prude (I hope), but I feel there is something amiss when a 20 y/o undergrad wants to discuss course validation from a neighboring university and then she goes and sits in front of me wearing booty shorts and a very see-through t-shirt (or a tanktop so skimpy that half her bra shows no matter what, or... take your pick). Before someone says anything to the effect, yes, it's summer, but it is not that warm (we're having a nice 20-25 C average these days).

In short, how can I tell these women, politely, that they should think twice about showing up half naked to meetings with faculty members?

Note that I'm not implying that I'm feeling sexually harassed or anything along those lines. Without getting into details, I'm old enough and happily married enough that I don't find college girls sexually appealing anymore. What I'm looking for is a way of telling them meetings with people higher up in the hierarchy have implicit standards, including some pertinent to what you may and may not wear that doesn't sound like a crude rephrasing of oh please why don't you cover up you filthy [censored].


13 Answers 13


In short, how can I tell these girls, politely, that they should think twice about showing up half naked to meetings with faculty members?

I can think of 4 situations:

  1. If they are violating a university dress code, you should politely remind them of the policy.

  2. If they are not in violation of a university policy, but their appearance makes you feel sexually harassed, you should follow whatever procedure the university has in place. If the dress code allows for clothing that makes you feel harassed, I would follow the procedure to the letter and not say anything directly to the students. If there is no dress code, you can politely mention that their appearance makes you feel uncomfortable (or you can follow the procedure).

  3. If they are not in violation of a university policy and you do not feel sexually harassed, saying anything is giving them unsolicited advice. While I think it is not out of place for faculty members to give students unsolicited advice, you should do it politely and in a non-judgmental manner.

    Maybe something along the lines of:

    When meeting with someone in a professional setting business causal dress is often preferable, even when not formally required.

  4. Finally, you may want to document the issue with someone in your department. While an extreme case, I had a student who would regularly unbutton her blouse prior to entering my office and button it upon leaving. She would do this immediately outside my door and in my view. This probably qualified as sexual harassment, but I did not care to follow up. I did, however, tell my head of school and director of teaching (as well as making sure my door was always open) so that they were aware of the issue in case she ever raised a complaint.

  • 166
    @Koldito Be extremely careful with #3. While you might not feel sexually harassed, it's very easy for comments on student dress to be taken as sexual harassment of them by you. If you do take option #3, stress "professionalism" and stay away from terms like "half naked". Basically, don't say anything that wouldn't also apply to a guy showing up in a baggy, stained sweatsuit. (Both in details and generalities.) Also be cautious about which students you give the unsolicited advice to. Some may be accepting of it, but others will be more inclined to take offense.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 18:03
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    -1: If they are not in violation of a university policy, that's it. Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 18:14
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    @StrongBad I don't think it is your wording that is the problem. It is that the OP seems disproportionately concerned with women. Now, it may be that only women are dressing casually, but I think that is unlikely to be the case. Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 19:54
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    I agree with @R.M.; #3's conversation could turn dangerous very quickly. I can easily imagine a girl in that situation feeling very uncomfortable. Imagine being her: so I have broken no rules, and now this older, married man with power over my course grade tells me he's been paying attention to how I dress?
    – jds
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 22:03
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    @MassimoOrtolano, don't be silly. The idea that if something isn't against the official rules then its unproblematic is pretty daft. Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 2:27

Does your institution have a student dress code?
Does your location have public indecency laws?

If their clothing violates either, refuse meetings until the problem is corrected.

Otherwise, ignore their appearance and carry on as usual.

Their sense of appropriate dress is clearly different from yours, but like political or religious opinions, such senses are often personal and cultural. For all you know, a bikini is her preferred set of comfortable clothing. Without a clear agreed-upon set of rules to defer to, such opinions are unproductive to dispute. Let it be.

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    It sounded like, and perhaps I'm wrong, but maybe the OP is worried the revealing clothing is more than just clothing choice on that given day. Sounds like the OP is uncomfortable about possible insinuations the revealing clothing may be attempting to apply.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 15:20
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    -1 If the OP feels sexually harassed, it is wrong to suggest that he ignore it. It is also possible that the dress leads to further issues.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 16:15
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    To be clear, it is not an issue of sexual harassment, implied or not. For better or worse, I've already reached the age where I find college girls nowhere as sexually appealing as they where when I was a college boy.
    – Koldito
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 16:30
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    @SnakeDoc By the way, 37 is positively ancient when you are 18 or 20 ;).
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 16:56
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    +1, but you should probably ignore it even if it does violate policies or laws. The last thing the student needs is some older guy giving her misguided, sexually charged "life lessons" about what to do with her body. It's just clothes and skin: shrug it off.
    – user34397
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 4:51

My suggestion is to do nothing and say nothing this term in order to avoid the risks others have pointed out, especially since you say you neither feel harassed nor uncomfortable.

However, next term, I would suggest doing what I had a professor do: add a "Professionalism" section to your syllabus and first day procedural talk. You still have to be careful in some of the ways others have pointed out: make sure you frame everything around professionalism and preparing them for the workplace, use subdued language that applies to unprofessional attire for both genders and if you cite examples, give one for men and women. Also, and this is key, include other unrelated examples of things they need to know for how to behave, like how to professionally email a professor (that's what my professor went on about. boring to me, but I'm sure some people in the class needed it). Don't forget to add something about how conforming to (for appeasing rhetorical purposes add 'arbitrary') rules about professional attire may be just a hoop to jump through, but that it is a socially meaningful way to communicate seriousness and respect. In general, just be careful of the tone. Preface and end it with something like 'most of you probably don't need this, but some students don't get the preparation they need in highschool for how to behave in the real world, yada yada yada...'

The benefits of this plan are many

  1. It gives you the opportunity to pass on actually helpful information to your students that they are expected to just know in the business environment
  2. It protects you from being misunderstood or maliciously attacked
  3. It accomplishes your goal or,
  4. Makes it so that if you do say something, it is less reasonable of them to claim you are overstepping or being oppressive since you made your expectations clear beforehand
  5. Gives you the opportunity to set expectations that will help the term run smoother and more enjoyably

Well, that's my two cents. Hope it helps.

Edit concerning addressing the issue this term (warning, somewhat abstract)

As someone in the comments pointed out, you could send out a mass email addressing the entire class. My concern with this gets at what I think the key distinction is in professionally responding to this scenario, and also provides an opportunity to respond to some of the critiques of the question itself leveled in other responses.

As many have pointed out there is a difference between professionalism and prudery. This distinction is not the same thing as whether or not student behavior (of any kind) bothers you. These are different aspects of the issue. Dress is a socially embedded method of communication, so it is unhelpful to say you merely ought to keep your opinions to yourself. Dress codes simplify dynamic, but are never exhaustively effectual. Taken together this means that professionally responding to scenarios concerning the professionalism of student behavior must take into account institutionalized norms (like dress codes), context (like your relation to students as well as timing), as well as personal judgements.

That last one is tricky though and that is where the fine line is. First of all, it is inescapable because we are socially embedded creatures. To say it is not inescapable by saying it is all merely opinion or that there is an absolutely objective response both lead to an arbitrariness as well as an abstract conception of what it means to be human which denies the real character of being a social creature both affected by and affecting norms. It is also problematic (ie, the risk of being a prude). This is all too philosophical though, so let me be concrete: it comes to not being disingenuous by simply imposing what you would like on your students, but making it about being helpful to them. Even if deep down you are disingenuous, it would be unprofessional to act that way, so you have to include various other pieces of advice on how to professionally behave as a student in a sufficiently non-confrontational, non-reactionary, and in an honest enough manner to actually help your students rather than to simply make them conform.

This means ultimately making it about the students and not oneself (even if deep down you're selfish about it). That means not being reactionary or making students feel singled out. That means you can't do it this term. It would be too reactionary causing those students to be self conscious about their looks, and would ultimately make it about you, which is morally condemnable, unhelpful to the students (I won't argue this point, but trust me), and (importantly seeing as this was asked within the context of academia), unprofessional. No pretensions about being objective would prevent this precisely because of its socially embedded nature.

As such, I repeat, do nothing this term, include a professionalism section next term, and try your best to use it to actually help your students. At least in my local, the highschools under-prepare their students, and you really may be the only person who ever explains to these students you are supposed to be respectful in an email, or turn off your phone before you go into a meeting with one's superior, and yes, wear sexually neutral clothing in a professional environment.

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    This. It’s the only constructive approach.
    – Crissov
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 23:54
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    This is a logical and appropriate way to address the issue.
    – ABcDexter
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 19:52
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    +1, but why can't he just send out an email to the whole class with a note on professional attire this semester? It's not like the only option is to talk to them individually or talk to next semester's class as a whole. Otherwise, fantastic answer.
    – user541686
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 11:22
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    Phil H, you are right that there is a premise to the answer, but it is not so nefarious as you make it out to be. It is rather merely the premise of the question which I was answering not critiquing. Not being in the room when these girls come to see the professor asking the question I reserve judgements concerning whether or not this specific instance is a real issue. Regardless, when it is an issue (and you might be surprised how often students are not aware of these things), I believe my advice would work. As to it possibly being patronizing, that it is a matter of tone, which I addressed.
    – Evans
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 18:21
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    Whatever you do show it to chair of dept get them to approve it first. That way you have a legal fallback.IN most US universities it is simply not the place of the professor to give helpful tidbits about how to dress. Unless it is a class where that is relevant. If it is math, for instance, it is not relevant.
    – neuronet
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 3:03

I'm not a prude (I hope)

Being a prude is not a binary state. Their choice of clothes makes you slightly uncomfortable: you don't see them as sexual subjects but you do see them as "half naked", and you feel that there's "something amiss".

So, compared to them and their peers, actually you are a little prudish. There should be no shame in admitting that to yourself, or in considering that your feelings are what you can directly deal with. You don't want to see these women half-naked. That's a perfectly reasonable preference, but not necessarily one that you should require somebody else to go to extra trouble to fulfil.

You say that meetings with their superiors have implicit standards. This strongly suggests that none of those standards are explicit, that is to say there's no dress code or any other concrete expression of the standards you're talking about, and nobody else has told them that office hours visits should be considered a somewhat-formal meeting. In short, you're sailing on your own gut feeling here, which is a dangerous way to interfere with how other members of a large institution choose to dress.

Your feelings may or may not be in line with the gut feelings of the rest of the faculty, but it's clearly not in line with the gut feelings of your students, who don't feel they should dress up for your office hours. So speak about student dress to other faculty members and your own superiors, and anyone who has a direct responsibility for student conduct. Be sure to dress up compared with your normal clothes, when speaking to your own superiors, because they are ever-so grand. If in doubt, formal evening attire is always appreciated in the office of a Dean or above ;-) If there's a general feeling that things have gone too far then the institution should act consistently to suggest or demand a certain standard of dress when attending any office hours, not just yours.

I should add that I'm assuming these meetings with you aren't something they prepare for as a formal event: they see it as just dropping in on you in your office hours, as part of their day. So if you give them the advice you're tempted to give them, about "meetings with their superiors", then they'll be like tourists visiting a famous church. They have the clothes they wear normally for comfort or style or however they decide what to wear, then they have a cover-up they carry in their bag to put on when they visit you because you have different standards from the rest of their day. So yeah, that would come across as prudish and idiosyncratic to those who disagree with your standards, there's no avoiding it.

If you feel that meetings with you are a formal event, as opposed to one stop in the middle of their typical day, then by all means advise some level of business-casual dress. I attended a university that had a strict dress code for exams and vivas. I literally would not have been permitted to attend such "meetings" with my superiors if not wearing a bow-tie. So I know what academic dress codes can look like at the extreme, and if there's a standard, fine: people have to meet it, or lobby to change it, or get out. But this cuts both ways: if there's a standard for how students are allowed to dress, and this is within it, then you have to accept it, or lobby to change it, or get out. Don't tell them their chosen clothes are inappropriate if it turns out the "official" view of the university is that they're acceptable and that you should not treat your office hours as a formal meeting.

To avoid being accused of (and, for that matter, to avoid actually exhibiting) gender discrimination you should probably object to ripped jeans, baggy shorts, football jerseys, and other clothing inappropriate for semi-formal situations, just as much as you object to bras showing. Because if your standard is the number of square inches of female skin on display, sorry, you're showing your age and some prudery. I know this because I'm the same age as you are and I'm continually astonished by the fashions the young'uns go through. Male or female, and whether the clothes are revealing or not I confess to being bewildered!

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    Yes, +1. OP doesn't understand what it means to be a prude... Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 21:01
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    This is an excellent answer.
    – Tom Church
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 5:44
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    @Mehrdad: I repeat, "Being a prude is not a binary state", but you're writing as if it is. Actually I'm not an academic, but if my students habitually lived their lives naked, but this made me uncomfortable to the extent I didn't want them naked in my office, then yes, relative to them I would be somewhat prudish. Professional attire tries to pick a point on this axis that everyone is aware of, which is fine provided that everyone agrees professional attire is required when visiting faculty offices. I am unconvinced it is at the questioner's university, or he wouldn't need to ask us. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 10:32
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    And the same applies in the opposite direction: if some new questioner comes along who honestly believe that women should cover their hair, is he being prudish or are we being "perverse"? Both, of course, he's a prude relative to me and I'm perverse relative to him. There is no sense and no mileage in trying to divide the world in to "prudes" and "non-prudes". Saying that the OP is prudish relative to his students is not to say that his standard is wrong, and I am not trying in this answer to define any absolute correct standard. He has to look to his own institution's standards for cues. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 10:36
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    FWIW I'd prefer "liberal" or "easy-going" as an antonym to "prudish", but I don't think the label should affect the basic analysis of what's going on here, which is that we're talking about a spectrum of varying social expectations, and how to navigate that. So, fine, "perverse" :-) The outcome does not hinge on whether or not the questioner "is a prude" according to some dichotomy, and I'm trying to guide him away from that mistaken path, not to classify him on the prudish side of the same so-called-objective dichotomy whose existence I reject ;-) Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 10:44

Going against everyone else, I believe that, if the university makes any sort of claims about preparing people for the workplace, there should be some attempt to remind these students of what is (in)appropriate. Based on my experience, the students may not be deliberately being inappropriate; many seem to have no concept that what is appropriate in one context is not appropriate in another. If we don't teach them that at university, there's a good chance they'll have to learn it the hard way when they (try to) enter the workplace.

However, I don't think you as someone-they've-come-to-at-the-end-of-term are the right person to pick them up on it. If you can identify the students, I would flag it to whoever is their individual tutor. If not, find who is responsible for them as a cohort. At least in the first instance, professionalism should probably be addressed at cohort level or above. How individuals can be approached, if there is a serious ongoing problem, will depend on the local structure of pastoral support.

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    Your advice is not against everyone else. Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 8:59
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    University is not a training ground for 'the workplace'. What makes you think that these students wouldn't be capable of dressing correctly for work?
    – jwg
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 16:36
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    @jwg What do you see as the point of university then? Many here explicitly advertise that they make people employable, and the government seems to value very little else from university education. As well as not dressing appropriately, I see students who lack any formality in emails (almost regardless of who to), or when speaking to you in person, or when in a formal teaching session.... When they show no appreciation for context while at university, how do you expect them to suddenly start doing so when they leave?
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 20:11
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    @jwg Besides, your office is your workplace.Suitable dress applies both ways. It may be considered best for an employee to ignore poor behaviour by a customer, but that doesn't change that it is poor behaviour.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 8:08
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    A nightclub is a workplace. A beach is a workplace if you're a lifeguard. Merely pointing out that you're entering somebody's workplace is not sufficient to imply that you should be wearing a suit (or business-casual, or whichever of several possible workplace standards you're going to choose to apply when visiting an academic's office in the name of preparing the visitor for that workplace). Granted, I'm struggling to think of a profession that both requires a degree to enter and where the norm for the workplace is for your bra to be visible ;-) Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 15:24

Similar issues to this one also arise in industry (in the United States) on a semi-regular basis and generally it seems that the following is the general consensus:

  1. Unless there is an explicit dress code in place, dress and appearance should be ignored in a professional manner (i.e. you don't comment on it unless invited to).
  2. Counseling someone on dress and appearance needs to be done in a very sensitive manner and usually it is better if someone of the same gender does it to avoid potential accusations of sexual harassment. This generally includes explicit dress code violations as well.

Without there being something like an explicit article of clothing that could be cited as troublesome (i.e. this scenario) the situation would likely be seen as very subjective, as evidenced by the comments on your question and the answers here. About the only thing you really can do it note it with your superiors since it does sound like the student's appearance was questionable enough to warrant the question on this site.

  • At the very least you best bounce your words of wisdom off of colleagues of the same gender, see if you are being reasonable, and likely the chair of the department. Leave a paper trail to cover your butt in the likely case that they file harassment charges against you after you give your helpful fashion advice. :)
    – neuronet
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 3:05

This is about rules, but also context.

Teenage, adolescence and early adulthood is a period where all sorts of provocative and inappropriate behavior can be met, and these issues reveal very sensitive, with mixing with the rules of a university or a workplace.

Early adulthood is a period of transgression, and transition involving self-esteem, fear, social building, etc. Light dress, aggressive words or attitude, political or religious signs are examples, that I do not put on equal footing. Young adults test themselves against older adults. Call it nature, hormones, growth, whatever. As an adult, do not take it personally. As a teacher, a figure of trust, better take it professionally: you are here to provide them with knowledge for life or work.

Just remember that quite often, "Sin is in The Eye of the Beholder" too. Some can be equally shocked by mystical signs on T-shirts of some metal listeners (I do listen to that kind of music. As a teenager, I was pleased this could shock my parents).

Adults can provide some guidance, should show a flawless example, and remind some of the rules that exist. I believe quite important not to make a personal case, either face to face or in public. Mentioning inappropriate dress code in a classroom is likely to spark attention to certain persons. So one has to stay professional, as much as can.

If the rules exist, they can be recalled at the beginning of the year, by an authority, while students (or co-workers) are still fresh and do not have a firm status: a dean, social services can do the job. If inappropriate behavior appears later, it can be interesting to share it with (trusted) colleagues, to address whether some actions should be taken. If so, a letter could be sent to some people (or all students), with a copy of the university's rules, recalling to respect them all.

If the rules don't exist, this is a good opportunity for the university staff to work on some.

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    I don't think the students are teenagers, actually.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 12:33
  • @Dilworth I have corrected as "Teenage, adolescence and early adulthood" Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 12:41
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    @Dilworth -- There's a lot of research that says that human minds don't completely mature until 25 or so years of age. Insurance companies in particular are very interested in this phenomenon. Young adults do stupid things. I have yet to meet an interesting older adult who did not do stupid things as a young adult. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 2:50
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    I would add to this answer: Beware of being patronising. Students are not stupid, nor are they unaware of what they are wearing. If you see them wearing clothing that tests the boundaries and respond with a lecture on how to dress like an adult, you will just be unceremoniously dropped in that box of all the people that try to control their behaviour to their own taste, like their parents and high school teachers.
    – Phil H
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 11:34
  • Just for the record, I've met dozens of "interesting people" that were extremely sober as young adults. Me included :)
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 12:41

If you're on good terms with the (quite likely female) office staff in your department you might consider asking one of them to catch the student in the hall or the office and comment - of course without telling the person that you or anyone else had suggested that.

Do clear this with the department chair in advance.

Edit in response to comments (and downvotes). I fully understand the reasons not to do this. My answer is based on my experience as professor and chair with an extremely competent and sensitive administrative assistant. I can well believe that had I suggested this to her she'd have agreed with the commenters that it was not the right way to handle the problem.

My goal in answering was to make sure that all avenues could be considered. There's a fine line to draw in many such problems between informal local solutions and the procedures spelled out in the rules (or, often, not spelled out).

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    I'd worry that students might feel "who the hell are they to tell me what to do" and, more seriously, that if students complain then support staff are not, erm, defended as robustly as TAs and academic faculty
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 17:22
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    Casually Involving another staff member in this sensitive issue strikes me as dangerous. The fact that she is addressed by a female staff member does not necessarily mean the student will react any more charitably. I would say follow all procedures to the letter. Do not involve anyone who is not either your direct supervisor or explicitly tasked with enforcing relevant standards. Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 20:09
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    This is ridiculous. For one thing, it is not fair to ask office staff to do this. For a second, it is not appropriate to have office staff perform this kind of pastoral role.
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 0:31
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    There's also an unfortunate undertone here from the "quite likely female". I'm aware that there are plenty of correlations, but if your suggestion is to have a woman talk to them (not that that's necessarily a good plan anyway, as Andrew pointed out), then why bother saying it should be the office staff?
    – Cascabel
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 0:43
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    Beyond the "office staff are female" angle, is it likely that most random undergrads even know the administrative staff in your particular department? I generally didn't, except in a few departments where I had particular involvement (e.g. I had keys to one university building, so I knew the staff member responsible for issuing keys, or in another case I presented at a department event, so I knew the staff member who helped organize that event). Having a staff member they've never even met critique their clothing is unlikely to go over well. Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 15:36

Couple of points that might help:

  1. It helps defuse the situation if you make a general guideline than if you address specific individuals because it might make them defensive or feel like they have been picked on. Ergo, if you do feel strongly about it send a general email to the class group or post a document addressing this on the class webpage.
  2. It helps even more if a third person does this job. e.g. Talk to the Department Secretary etc. & see if they can send a general email to the student body. That way the message is sent but no one feels picked upon, not even the members of any particular class. If this is an issue I am sure it is an issue for more than one class
  3. Another strategy that helps is to be seen as proactive rather than retaliatory. So next time perhaps have some of these things included in your class handouts on the first day itself.
  4. Talk about this issue in confidence to other faculty you trust. To make sure it is indeed an issue and not something you are overreacting to. Sometimes getting an independent perspective can totally surprise you.
  5. Make the effort to read up and see if there are university or departmental policies on this. If you do send out an email about this make sure you refer to those general policies. Never try to rewrite policy on an ad hoc basis.
  6. Try to differentiate between two different matters: (a) Is this affecting your interactions and hence you want change or (b) Are you trying to improve the students' professionalism for their own long-term good. If it is (a) then it warrents an immediate solution. If it is (b) there might be alternative paths that are a better resolution. e.g. A Departmental required seminar on professional conduct etc.
  7. Recognize that the problem may indeed be real, and you did a good job recognizing it but you may not be the best placed to deal with it. So try to see if someone else is best placed to handle it. e.g. The Department Secretary, The Student Affairs Dean, Department Chair etc.
  8. Take a minute to think if the effort is worth it. Is it easier just ignoring it? One must pick one's battles. Do you really feel so strongly about it? But if you do, then by all means pursue the matter.

Others have given good answers, I don't want to repeat them, but just another couple of thoughts:

I agree with you that this sort of dress is inappropriate. I AM a prude and I'm proud of it. But that said, if the university does not have a dress code or if the dress code is loose enough to allow what you describe, I think your options are very limited.

You certainly could offer advice about proper dress for "professional" meetings. But realistically, I think that given current culture and academic norms, the most likely response is that the young lady will reject any such advice. "Who are you to tell me how to dress?" "I can wear whatever I want." Etc. As others have noted, she might even accuse you of sexual harassment for bringing it up.

I wouldn't make a move without talking to higher-ups. The real solution is to get the dress code upgraded. If the university isn't willing to do that, then I don't think you have much of any chance to "win" trying to take action unilaterally. If you ask them to change the dress code (or to implement a dress code, if there is none), and they say no, then it's hard to imagine that they would back you up if you tried to impose the dress code that was just rejected on your own students.

Others have said that if there is no university rule about something, then an individual professor has no right to invent one. IN GENERAL I'd say this is absurd: professors impose their own rules on their classes all the time. If a student submitted his homework in crayon, I think many professors would tell him this was unacceptable, whether there was a university rule against using crayon or not. I'm sure a chemistry professor could tell students that they are required to turn off the Bunsen burners before leaving the lab, whether this is an official school policy or not. Etc. But in the particular case of student dress, especially female student dress, you're walking into a minefield. This is an emotionally, culturally, and politically charged area.

In American culture today, and especially at universities, there are some things that we all know are true but you are not allowed to say. A pretty young woman walking around campus in a bikini will be instantly sexually arousing to most males. She will likely find many young men following her around. Male professors, no matter how old and how happily married, will have to struggle to restrain inappropriate thoughts about her. A young man, no matter how handsome, walking around in a bathing suit will not have at all the same impact. Most people will just think it strange. Young woman may well notice he's handsome but it will likely be a passing thought. Female professors will mostly find it annoying, not arousing.

And I bet many of those reading the above paragraph are saying, "That's not true! That's absurd! How dare you say that!" But you know it is true. So maybe now they're saying, "Well, okay, it's true, but it's bad that it's true, and saying it out loud just, umm, like perpetuates stereotypes, or encourages people to think in terms of the way the world really is rather than the fantasy world that we wished we lived in". (Well, they probably wouldn't put it that way, but that's what they'd mean.)

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    I don't have to struggle to restrain myself from inappropriate thoughts about students, even when (as sometimes happens) they don bikinis to enjoy the sunshine. It's sad that you find it such a struggle to be a professional, but don't push your problems onto other people.
    – Tom Church
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 14:32
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    But you know it is true. — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 15:41
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    @JeffE Seriously? You need citations to prove that men like to look at pretty girls? If I say that rocks fall when you drop them would you demand a citation for that too? Can you give me a citation proving that I need to give citations for common knowledge? Well, okay, how about outsidethebeltway.com/science-men-like-to-look-at-women, foxnews.com/story/2007/09/05/…, cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/02/19/women.bikinis.objects/index.html I'm sure I could find dozens more if necessary.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 15:53
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    I rest my case. I stated the obvious -- men like to look at pretty women and find female bodies sexually arousing -- and already I have two posts challenging it. Next up: Do people really like to eat food?
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 15:56
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    You need citations to prove that men like to look at pretty girls? Of course not, but you didn't claim that "men like to pretty girls". I think your claim that I (an old, male, happily married professor) struggle to restrain inappropriate thoughts about pretty young women in bikinis requires some evidence. I'm particularly interested in seeing your evidence about my internal mental state.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 18:18

Let's take the extreme situation, and say that a female student shows up completely naked. Even in that case, your best bet is to do absolutely nothing.

  1. Most important, really, what do you care? How does this impinge negatively on your life at all? Don't you have better things to spend your time on?
  2. What business is it of yours? You have a fair amount of de jure and de facto authority over these students. You have therefore a corresponding responsibility to only use that authority appropriately. You aren't, I assume, teaching a course in fashion.
  3. What good can happen? Best case scenario, the student takes the advice in the spirit it was intended and follows it -- which is not that great. Worst case, and nowadays a likely one, is that she files some sort of grievance.
  4. Some of the rest of us like it when girls dress like that and would appreciate your not messing with a good thing.
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    1 and 2: Perhaps because the professor doesn't want to be sexually aroused during office meetings with students? Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 0:30
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    @immibis -- I used to have a job that required me to speak on technical topics to young women who were topless or naked. Well, "required" might be putting it strongly, more like "made it convenient", but my point is, the essence of professionalism is continuing to conduct yourself appropriately even in the face countervailing emotions. If a woman in a lacy top so distracts the OP he cannot function, that is a problem for him and his therapist, not other people. Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 0:39
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    @Malvolio Lol what job was that?
    – 1110101001
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 3:39
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    @1110101001 -- it was sort of an R-rated cam-site. (BTW, a tougher business than I would have imagined.) Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 4:29
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    @Malvollo Well that's something you should expect when you apply for a technical support job at a cam site... not so much as a university professor, I'm sure. Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 16:29

I've got hand it to you Koldito. I brought up a topic loosely similar to yours many months ago and nearly got crucified by a prude that frequents this site. I will only reveal his initials (N. E.).

I'm almost 50 years old and I can tell you that my libido is still very strong. I don't believe you one bit when you say you don't find college ladies appealing anymore ;>). I've been around too long and seen too much. I'll probably get crucified for saying that as well!

Anyway, I definitely do agree that you have yourself a difficult situation and I don't know what the ladies' motivations are. I have ideas though. In other words, I'm certain something is definitely amiss like you indicated.

I haven't read the advice others have posted. Perhaps you should place a dress code on your own academic web page that delineates how anyone should dress for these important meetings. Then, maybe you should tape a hard copy to your office door so that it can't be missed. Make sure it's strongly worded. You might need to get permission from your bosses to do this.

Your concerns are warranted. You are being placed into a dicey situation that you really don't want to be in. If I was the guy in this situation, I'd also be seeking my wife's advice. Your wife may be one of the best females to seek advice from...your best ally.

  • 2
    It might have something to do with the "creepy undertone" your writing passed me on this topic... The whole initials thing is childish, sorry, and the OP was considerably classier and more sensible expressing his doubts. It all sums up. While I do agree with the dress code, I think that should have been done previously.... You couldn't do it now without opening yourself to be asked "was it because of student X?". Maybe in the vacations before the next semester, while you don't have "current" students... Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 3:41
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    @Fabio Dias Wow! You had an unusually harsh reaction to reality. I think it was the word "libido". I wonder why that bothered you so? Interesting. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 23:34

As others have said, if there is no formal dress code, then their clothes are beyond your control.

But, your own behavior IS under your control. So, do not look at these students. Talk to them with your eyes on the ground or on the table.

This expresses your discomfort with the situation in a perfectly legal way. Your eyes are your own, and you do not have to look at people if you do not like their appearance, for whatever reason.

I believe this will make them consider their appearance, at least when they talk to you.

  • 9
    "a perfectly legal way" -- not necessarily. As their teacher, Koldito has a responsibility to them. Supposing that their dress is acceptable so far as the university is concerned, that responsibility likely includes talking to them in his normal way. Refusing to make eye contact with them might be considered as bad as refusing to teach them: he has the right to do it, but he may not have the right to do it and keep his job. Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 8:48
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    Definitely prone to misinterpretation - eye contact means different things in different cultures. Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 8:54
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    @Steve, you seem to assume that we live in a sort of corporation dictatorship. Nobody is going to fire a professor who don't look at their students. Period.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 12:35
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    @Dilworth: try it. Choose one of your students at random, stare only at the ground when talking to them, whilst continuing to make eye contact with all your other students, and see how long it takes them to be seriously freaked out and/or complain. Of course you won't be fired at the first offence, just told to behave better in future. Better yet don't pick on a student (since it's unfair to experiment on them), do it with your boss. When asked what you're doing, say as in this answer, "my eyes are my own and I don't have to look at people if I don't like their appearance". Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 15:07
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    This is an awful plan. How about just being professional and discussing the course with the students in your normal way no matter what they're wearing? Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 15:30

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