Cornell University student Letitia Chai stripped down to her underwear while delivering a presentation this week after a professor reportedly told her that her shorts were “too short” just days earlier. About two dozen of Chai’s fellow students joined in.
“This topic transcends all of our social identities and taps right into the heart of who we are,” Chai, a fourth-year student, said to a room of nearly 50 people while presenting her thesis paper on May 5, as seen in a livestream of the event.
Chai began undressing as she held back tears, first removing her shoes, then her pants and, lastly, her shirt.
“I am more than Asian. I am more than a woman. I am more than Letitia Chai. I am a human being,” she said while undressing. “And I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this next step, or rather this next strip, in our movement and to join me in revealing to each other and to seeing each other for who we truly are — members of the human race.”
Then 28 of the 44 people in the room also took off their clothes, The Cornell Sun reported. Although Chai’s protest happened last week, her story didn’t hit national news until Thursday.
The protest came just days after Chai was presenting a trial run of her thesis in her class “Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life” on May 2. When Chai went to give her trial run presentation, professor Rebekah Maggor questioned the student’s outfit choice.
“Is that really what you would wear?” Maggor asked Chai, according to a Facebook post the student wrote later that day.
Chai, who was wearing a long-sleeve button-down shirt and jean cutoff shorts, said she was “shook” by Maggor’s alleged comments.
“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,” she wrote on Facebook, noting that her professor is a white woman. “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.”
According to Chai, a male international student then made a comment that a presenter has a “moral obligation” to the audience to dress conservatively, at which point Chai fled the room in tears.
“I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency,” Chai told The Cornell Sun, referring to Maggor’s alleged comments that her outfit would invite the wrong type of attention.
Maggor responded to Chai’s protest in an email to the Sun.
“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” she said. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”
After Chai gathered herself, she came back into the classroom, stripped down to her underwear and gave her full thesis presentation. In a Facebook post, Chai said she would do the same for her actual thesis presentation and encouraged others to attend and do the same.
According to a statement written by 11 of the other 13 students in Maggor’s class that day, the situation may have gone down a bit differently than Chai wrote on Facebook.
They wrote that while Maggor made “an error in phrasing,” she had “apologized on more than one occasion.” The students added that Chai’s post did not “adequately represent [Maggor’s] past and continued advocacy for women and minorities.”
“Our intention in writing this letter is in no way to invalidate any of Letitia’s experience,” the statement reads. “We strongly support and identify with Letitia’s fight for equality ... The majority of us are students of color, from multi-ethnic backgrounds, who very much relate to Letitia’s frustration with systemic oppression that is part of the fabric of this country. We do not want to discredit her narrative. However, we feel it is important and our obligation to share our impression of Wednesday’s events to provide a fair representation of the situation.”
Below is an excerpt from the students’ statement detailing how the conversation in question happened (scroll below to read the letter in full):
Letitia stood up to give her speech. Before she began, our professor asked Letitia if she would wear “those shorts” to her actual presentation on Saturday. Our professor regularly asks all of the students, male and female, such questions to clarify appropriate attire for public speaking. Our professor went on to say that what you wear and how you present yourself make a statement. She noted that if you were to wear jean shorts to your thesis presentation, that is a statement. Her focus on attire was a means of noting the importance of professionalism in certain public speaking situations.
Our professor acknowledged the discomfort of speaking overtly about attire and perception, especially for women, and encouraged us to share our thoughts and opinions. Students began discussing their beliefs on the matter. Letitia became visibly upset by our professor’s earlier comments, and after one male international student’s comment (mentioned in her post), she left the room. From the initial comments to Letitia’s exit, only a few minutes had passed, and many people were speaking at once. Tensions were high, and neither our professor nor Letitia was able to adequately defend her position.
After Letitia left, our professor listened and agreed with many of the student’s comments and criticisms. She wholeheartedly agreed that her initial comment was about professionalism rather than the “male gaze” mentioned in the student discussion. She also apologized for her choice of words, acknowledging that the notion of “short shorts” on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage. Unfortunately, because Letitia was not in the room, she was not able to hear these comments, and we believe this contributed to the miscommunication.
Maggor was unable to provide additional comment at press time, and Chai has not responded to a request for comment.
In her original Facebook post, Chai wrote why she chose to protest Maggor’s comments and the larger issue of policing people’s bodies.
“This is for every Asian woman who was told to speak up lest others think she’s submissive,” she wrote. “This is for every POC man who was told to pull his pants to be taken seriously, and every POC woman who was asked to straighten her hair to seem intelligent. This is for every gay friend who was told to dress more ‘straight’ so that others didn’t feel weird around him/her/them. This is for us.”
Read the full statement from 11 of the other 13 students in Chai’s class below.
Head over to The Cornell Sun to read more about this story.