Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Fix your tie. Spray your hair, did you just get out of bed? Your shoes are unacceptable.
The mentality that I was taught joining the debate space my freshman year of high school was that if you want to talk about adult problems, you need to dress like one. My sophomore year I wore button down blouses with rolled up sleeves, bootcut dress pants, and small black heels. As we progressed through the season, I beat girls who probably struggled putting on their tights that morning and sweat through their suit jacket during the day. Competing in policy debate at Glenbrooks my junior year, where students wore clothes ranging from sweatpants to jeans, my partner was told that her wearing leggings was an unacceptable representation of our school. I thought us only winning one round was a more unacceptable representation of our school. Participating in extemporaneous speaking my junior year as well, my friend told me that no girl who wears pants in speech will be taken seriously. But the one girl wearing pants won first place at my first two competitions.
As I reflected upon my own experience in the speech and debate space, I realized that as long as you feel comfortable and presentable in what you’re wearing, your clothing has no impact on the ballot. The only time it does is whether an individual judge chooses to take your physical appearance into consideration when making their decision, and this occurs more often for some students than others. But why should they? If you are a competitor in an informative event, should it not be the knowledge that you have acquired in the speech and debate space that should be judged? I could be wearing a purple wig, but should it not be the quality of information that I am relaying, and the manner in which I am doing so be prioritized? How about the quality of my interaction with my competitors? One round lost based on your dirty shoes at a four round meet will lose you first place. One round influenced by your top can unfairly impact your debate record. And one round lost based on your torn tights can stain a wonderful, and more importantly, educational debate experience.
The issue is that a classist, toxic culture has been created in the speech and debate space, where students expect the judges to not just judge their performance, but also their clothing. One may expect that because they braided their hair that morning and that they are wearing pearls, they are more likely to win in comparison to the girl with her hair in a ponytail and bland pants. Sometimes, judges may buy into that, either through choice or strong implicit bias. Realistically, the person with the most knowledge and best presentation of that information should be rewarded. This environment is not just frustrating for the student at a lower socioeconomic level, who may struggle to participate in this activity because of their financial limitations, but this also teaches students at a higher socioeconomic level that their money automatically makes them “better” rather than their own individual efforts and actions. These actions perpetuate a classist ideology, and rather than speech and debate creating the leaders of tomorrow, it pushes students to become the oppressors of tomorrow.
The original mentality of Speech and Debate, it seems, is that students should be taught to present their best self. But a person’s best self has been equated to a person’s best physical appearance, including the quality of that person’s clothing and how well it fits the societal norm. If this is how we choose to define a person’s best self, we are guaranteed to fail students.
But, don’t we need to teach students to be professional in preparation for the real world? Well, sure! If you as a coach or mentor are able to teach your students to speak well, engage with their audience well, and be confident in their research and themselves as competitors, that will be more valuable to them in life than anything else. If there is anything that I learned through debate, it is that there are no such things as just “adult” problems; and wearing a suit will not make you better at dealing with them.
But what can we do to help students who are impacted by this issue today? I would first suggest that judges should be reminded at every tournament to vote based on the quality of the debate and/or presentation rather than be swayed by their opinion on the physical appearance of the students. Secondly, in regions where presentation is still seen as an important part of the speech and debate space, high school teams should offer resources for parents and students who are tight on budgets. This can include providing names of stores and websites they can visit to purchase affordable, “professional” clothing, or as an individual school, they can accept donations of “professional” clothing create a closet to offer to students to borrow clothing items for competitions. If you, the reader, have any other ideas and/or suggestions, please comment them below!
Munster High School Senior