On Wednesday night, I was in Battell Chapel with several other Yale students, sipping barley tea and watching the flickering candles as Omer Bajwa, Yale’s Muslim chaplain, led a discussion. He was wearing a kufi — a Muslim head-covering men often wear during prayers and which he usually wears when he represents Islam in an official capacity — and he has had a beard for years.
Bajwa said some Muslim students make assumptions because of his traditional dress, which is sometimes associated with more conservative, stern and fundamentalist orientations. As he explained where these students were coming from and what experiences they might have had with other Muslim men who had beards and wore kufis, I was struck by his sympathy. This was not a man who dismissed these students as prejudiced and intolerant. While it saddened him that they might not take the opportunity to get to know him better, he recognized how his appearance might cue different assumptions for them.
We all judge people based on appearance, and often we feel bad about it. After all, isn’t judgment wrong? We’re told not to judge others, and we tell others not to judge us. Judging harshly, unfairly or quickly is one of the more dangerous tendencies a person can possess.
But dispensing with judgment altogether is not the answer either. Dress is a powerful way for human beings to express themselves and their values. To deny that your appearance has significance or is embedded with cultural signifiers is naive. This blanket rejection of the right to judge and be judged not only strips others’ personal choices of meaning but also allows us to evade responsibility for our own choices.
The associations people have between clothing and values can undeniably be seen in the way various social groups on campus are defined by stereotypical dress. Most students could at a glance roughly distinguish the hipsters from the jocks. This is not to say that most of us don’t have overlapping identities, but our typical dress tends to align us with certain social communities and their values.
You must take responsibility for the message your appearance sends, whether or not you agree. People are allowed to surprise or undercut communal assumptions, but it is ridiculous to pretend those assumptions don’t — or shouldn’t — exist.
Attention to appearance is not material or vain. The most common argument against school uniforms is that they restrict student expression. Shouldn’t we take that self-expression seriously, both for others and for ourselves? By suspending all judgment that may be derived from clothing, we are denying the power of appearance to express who we are. Dyed hair, briefcases, tattoos, piercings, heels, three-piece suits, jeans and sneakers all say something about us, as do very revealing or extremely modest clothing. Outrageous or subdued, dress is the world’s first impression of who we are.
I find that members of religious communities, often dressed in overt symbolism, are most sensitive to the significance of clothing. Just as Omer Bajwa was conscious that his decision about his dress had wider associations, most religious clothing carries connotations of which the wearer must be conscious.
As part of a senior project in high school, I spent a few weeks at a very religious all-girls school in Brooklyn. On the subway to and from the school every day I wore the school uniform of an ankle-length plaid skirt, black tights and a long-sleeve white button down shirt. Men kept their distance. Even my friends were less comfortable telling crude jokes; they were subtly influenced by my shield of modesty. Because my dress really didn’t reflect personal values, it was easier to compare how people reacted to me differently. But even if I notice it less, it is no different when I wear everyday clothing and signify to others that I am willing to hear vulgar language and hug male friends.
Dress is powerful, and it is wrong to be angry with those who find meaning in how others present themselves to the world. Others have the right to make assumptions about us based on how we dress. The danger lies in refusing to allow for self-determination and not respecting an individual’s interpretation of her own dress once we get to know her. Our assumptions must be subject to change if we encounter new information. But judgment in of itself is not wrong, and it can play an important role in prompting self-reflection.
Shira Telushkin is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.