Isn't it time for a serious debate about our attitudes on dress, modesty and beauty?

As some netizens remarked in the wake of the incident, sometimes a little modesty or reserve shows the woman to advantage more than calculated exposure.

Recently a student surnamed Cui from Hunan Agricultural University lodged a formal complaint with the school that while studying in the school library, he felt distracted by scantily dressed girls there.

He claimed these women were no less than a sort of “sexual harassment” to the other sex, had seriously disrupted the study order, and should be regulated.

In responding to the complaint, the school library reiterated existing regulations providing that all students should be properly dressed in the library.

The regulation stipulated that students there should not wear a tank top, pants or skirts less than 50 centimeters long, or flip-flops.

Although the regulation would have appeared perfectly normal in its own right — applying as it did to males and females alike — when it was posted again, as a tacit response to the complaint, it became controversial, particularly the provision for the length of the skirt.

Some said that the move was a case of discriminating against and objectivizing female students. In the wake of the uproar the school authority hastily rescinded the regulation, followed by an updated version that did not make any reference to the length of the skirt. The authority even issued an apology for “the confusion and inconvenience” it had caused students.

Apparently today any discussion that might be seen through the lens of correctness has to proceed with caution, or be avoided at all. But hopefully we could still skirt around the skirt issue in a discursive manner. To begin with, Cui need not feel ashamed for being so susceptible to bare shoulders or knees, to the point of distraction.

In lashing at the fertility of some Chinese people’s imaginative power, literary giant Lu Xun once wrote in an essay that “the sight of short sleeves would immediately hint at milky arms, and then the naked body … and then bastards.” But that was in 1927.

At a time when more tantalizing stuff is perpetually beckoning a few clicks away in the brave world of cyberspace, Cui’s imaginative power, if anything, testifies to a disciplined life.

Short sleeves are no big deal today. Still, an appropriate dress code for women in a library, rather than constituting a prejudice against them, might suggest a thoughtful and precautionary measure to prevent females from being unfairly exploited by the likes of Cui in the fever of their reverie. It should be a win-win deal. Some women might contend that they choose to be dressed skimpily exactly for the purpose of drawing attention. If this is the case, then it could be argued if undue exposure of sensitive body parts could achieve the avowed purpose.

Several centuries ago, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote in his “The poetry of Dress” about how he was bewitched by “a sweet disorder in the dress,” “a lawn about the shoulders thrown,” “an erring lace,” “a cuff neglectful,” or “a careless shoe-string,” rather than bare shoulders or knees. As some netizens remarked in the wake of the incident, sometimes a little modesty or reserve shows the woman to advantage more than calculated exposure.

Another advantage is purely economical, accruing from the savings in wardrobe if a degree of dress code could be enforced. We need not go far to be convinced that even in difficult times, fashion and beauty parlors are plying a thriving business. By all accounts we are quickly marching into an age when one’s appearance is dictated more by fashion-mongers, Hyaluronic acid, and plastic surgeons rather than by the Maker. Is this development aspirational for all women?

Hence my doubt that by parroting some esoteric “isms” some females might be playing into the hands of the unscrupulous money makers.

Given such complications, it is probably in our best interest to maintain a degree of consensus on matters of decency and taste regarding appropriate dress.

As a professor told me recently: “I feel that fashion should make us look more beautiful or business-like as the situation warrants. I consider deliberately ripped pants, gaping holes at the knees etc. a stupidity perpetrated by the crowd who blindly follow insane pop-idols whose motto seems to be: The uglier the better.”

Probably many of our female compatriots could hope to gain by revisiting some of our classics.

Some of the most memorable lines in the epic “Book of Poems” celebrating a beauty run like this: “Her fingers were like the blades of the young white-grass. Her skin was like congealed ointment. Her neck was like the tree-grub. Her teeth were like melon seeds. Her forehead cicada-like. Her eyebrows like (the antennae of) the silkworm moth. What dimples, as she artfully smiled! How lovely her eyes, with the black and white so well defined!”

This suggests our eyes need not go far and wide in our search of of beauty.

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