The feminist blogosphere was buzzing this weekend with the story of 23-year-old Kyla Ebbert, a Southwest Airlines passenger whom a steward pulled aside and reprimanded for her choice of clothing that day – which included an upper-thigh-length skirt and a tank top covered by a light cardigan.
Ebbert boarded a flight in San Diego en route to sweltering Tucson for a doctor’s appointment, and – because she would be there only a few hours – carried no luggage. When a Southwest employee named Keith brought her to the front of the plane and told her to change, she informed him that she had nothing to change into. He then asked her to book a later flight and go home to put on a different outfit. When she refused because of her appointment, Keith let Ebbert reboard the plane, but not before she pulled down her skirt, pulled up her top and listened to a lecture about appropriate dress. Ebbert says she was mortified because the entire plane had heard the lecture, and requested a blanket to cover her legs for the flight.
Truth be told, Ebbert’s outfit was not obscene. In fact, it was fairly standard summer attire for young women who are comfortable with showing a little skin. When she asked Southwest Airlines for an apology, she did not receive one. Instead, Southwest wrote a letter to Kyla’s mother, downplaying the situation: “Southwest Airlines was responding to a concern about Ms. Ebbert’s revealing attire on the flight that day. As a compromise, we asked her to adjust her clothing to be less revealing, she complied, and she traveled as scheduled,” it said.
On one feminist website, Feministing.com, whose bloggers weighed in on the story, some commentators argued that feminists should be concerned not with the way Ebbert was treated, but with how she was dressed in the first place. Feminists struggle to eliminate the woman-as-sex-object standard that has infiltrated most aspects of popular media, and women like Ebbert don’t exactly help that cause, they argue. One poster commented: “Are we really arguing that objectification is okay, so long as the woman does it to herself?”
News outlets were sure to make it known that Ebbert is a Hooters waitress, which further fueled the debate. Because Ebbert makes a living working at an establishment infamous for its wings, beer and hot women in spandex triple play, perhaps she had no right to get upset when she was called out for her attire. Feminism, however, is all about the choice.
When the choice to show a bit of skin or keep covered up, to work outside the home or within it, becomes a reason to ridicule a woman, it becomes a feminist issue. When a woman is called “money-hungry” for pursuing a career, or “slutty” for wearing a short skirt on a hot day, or a “prude” for wearing a long skirt on a cold one, those are feminist issues.
In the 1970s, Southwest ran a series of ads focused on the mini-shorts their stewardesses were required to wear. “Remember what it was like before Southwest Airlines? You didn't have hostesses in hot pants. Remember?” they asked. The hypocrisy of this “family airline” is dumbfounding.
In 30 years, short hemlines have gone from a marketing tool for Southwest Airlines to a reason to prohibit a woman from boarding one of their flights. While eliminating the hot pants was a step in the right direction, chastising a woman for her clothing is not progress.
Ebbert’s situation and Southwest’s hot pants history sends a contradictory message that women should be sexy but not overtly so, lest they be punished. A woman must always examine her outfit on a “sluttiness” scale before leaving the house, lest she be kicked off a plane or bus (as one woman was earlier this summer because the driver said her cleavage was distracting), leered at by men or, even worse, raped – all of which would be her fault, of course, if her outfit “crossed the line.”
Wendy Shallit and Laura Sessions Stepp are the leaders of a movement that argues for “a return to modesty” for women, for lassoing female sexuality as a means of gaining power. They consider their endeavor to be a feminist one. However, guilt and shame have no place in liberation. The only true liberation is a liberation that celebrates choice.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.