Cornell senior Letitia Chai took a stand by stripping down and presenting her senior thesis in her underwear—twice.
The two protests—one spontaneous, one planned—were in reaction to Chai’s professor’s criticism of her denim shorts. In a series of Facebook posts she later documented and shared via Google Drive, Chai wrote that it began when she went to her Acting In Public class to perform a draft of her thesis presentation on refugee rehabilitation. Chai wrote that she was wearing a button-down shirt and denim cut-off shorts, and that her professor, Rebekah Maggor, a white woman, asked her, “Is that really what you want to wear?” Chai wrote that the professor then told her, “Your shorts are too short” and lectured her in front of the class about “inviting the male gaze away from the content of my presentation and onto my body.” According to Chai, several students backed her up, but one student told her she had “a moral obligation to dress more conservatively,” at which point she left the classroom. (According to student paper the Cornell Sun, the class does not have a dress code but asks students to “dress appropriately for the persona [they] will present.”)
11 of the 13 other students in Chai’s class later released a statement saying, “aspects of the Facebook post Chai made detailing Wednesday’s incident do not align with our collective agreement of how events transpired that day and the intentions behind them.” The students wrote that their professor’s quotes were “taken out of context” and that she regularly asked students about their choice of clothing when presenting. However, the letter describes the professor using Chai’s outfit as the chance to open discussion for the class about the perception of Chai’s outfit and women’s clothing, a discussion that the students wrote continued after Chai left the room.
Chai wrote that outside of the classroom, the professor asked her what her mother would think about her outfit and told her to be “be less submissive,” referring to stereotypes about Asian women. Chai responded that her mother is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor and “would be fine with my shorts.” Chai then returned to the classroom, stripped down to her underwear and gave her thesis presentation that way. (The 11 students wrote in their statement that Chai and the professor spoke outside the classroom, but that they don’t know what they spoke about.)
Chai then organized a public (and livestreamed) presentation of her thesis in which she again stripped down and invited the audience to strip as well. On Facebook, she wrote, “This is for every Asian woman who was told to speak up lest others think she’s submissive. This is for every POC man who was told to pull up 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.” She wore the same outfit, down to her black underwear (“PS for those wondering, my underwear is from Uniqlo,” she wrote).
In the livestreamed video, Chai stripped while saying, “I am more than Asian. I am more than a woman. I am more than Letitia Chai. I am a human being. And I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this 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.” The students in attendance then stripped, and Chai presented her thesis on refugee rehabilitation.
On her public Facebook page, renamed “Lchai Thesis,” Chai requested that the media not share her thesis video in articles about her. However, she shared a link to a Google Drive folder containing her original Facebook posts, and her video remains at the top of her Facebook page. It has currently been viewed 225,000 times.
top image via Uniqlo
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