How (Not) to Dress for Chess

Photo by Monoar / pixabay.com

Last month, a young competitor in the National Scholastic Chess Championship in Putrajaya, Malaysia was pulled from the tournament over an outfit that chess officials deemed “too seductive.”

I haven’t mentioned whether the competitor was a boy or a girl, but I’m guessing I don’t need to. Boys generally aren’t harassed over so-called “seductive” outfits.

The girl in question was twelve.

Her chess coach posted a picture of the girl in her dress (which is specifically described as a “children’s dress,” welcoming us to read in all sorts of inferences) on Facebook, along with some details about what transpired. An arbiter interrupted her while she was playing to tell her that her outfit was inappropriate. She was given the option of purchasing a new outfit for competition the next day, but by that time, all the shops were closed. Without a chess-director-sanctioned outfit at hand, the girl was forced to withdraw from the tournament.

I’ve written about modesty and body-shaming before, and the topic remains close to my heart. The day before I saw the piece about the chess tournament, my own twelve-year-old daughter came home in tears, having gotten in trouble for a dress code infraction. She was embarrassed, ashamed, and confused—she’d worn the very same outfit before, and it was fine. What had happened?

I wonder sometimes, when school (and chess) officials deem a growing girl’s outfit inappropriate, if they’ve forgotten to remember the part about “growing.” What had happened in my daughter’s case was that somewhere in the clothes cycle of body to floor to hamper to washer to dryer to hamper to floor to drawer to body, her body had changed. She grew. The outfit didn’t.

I wonder sometimes, when school (and chess) officials deem a growing girl’s outfit inappropriate, if they’ve forgotten to remember the part about “growing.”

When my sons outgrow their clothes, people comment good-naturedly on their high-water pants or short shorts. When my daughters outgrow their clothes, they are body-shamed.

Talking with a friend about the girl pulled from the chess tournament, I found myself saying “I can’t even imagine.” But that’s not exactly true—I can imagine. I can imagine a young chess-playing girl like my own, excitement and nervousness all bundled together inside her as she prepares for the tournament. I can imagine her waking up early that morning, maybe being too worked up to eat breakfast. Getting dressed—and dressed up!—for her big day. I can imagine her facing her competition across the table in the tournament, shaking hands, setting the timer. I can imagine the countless moves flitting through her mind as play begins, and the focus required to narrow in on the board and the pieces in front of her.

And then—what happens? An official comes over. Has she made a mistake? Broken a rule of the game? No. She is the problem. Her body is the fault. She is forced to get up and leave, her brilliant mind taking a backseat to the body in which it resides. She has effectively been told that it doesn’t matter how smart she is or how skilled at the game of chess, the important thing, the place she must train her focus, is on her body.

The girl’s coach described her as “extremely disturbed, and embarrassed” following the event, but I imagine that doesn’t even come close. She will return home without a trophy—not because she wasn’t able to defeat her opponents, but because she wasn’t allowed to try.

I want more for this girl—for my own daughters, for all girls. The nexus of bodies and sexuality and modesty and shame is confusing and complicated; I don’t know anyone who truly has it all figured out. But it seems awfully like the shame of an outfit infraction at age twelve is just one stop on a long road of shame and blame that women face. Perhaps we could find a better path.

Elrena Evans curates the blog for Christians for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.

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