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University defends fitness center dress code amid controversy

U. counters claims of sexist dress policy after recent incidents regarding skin exposure

Two Rhode Island School of Design students recently reported that they had been asked to leave the Nelson Fitness Center for not complying with the dress policy because they were exposing their midriffs. The two women claim Brown’s dress policy is sexist and discriminatory toward women, while University officials have defended the rules as maintaining proper hygiene.

Last spring, Elizabeth Dimitroff, a RISD student, was told by a Nelson employee to cover up or leave when she worked out in a “sports bra with high-waisted leggings,” Dimitroff said.

But Nelson Fitness Center Manager Jason Bishoff defended the rule as necessary for ensuring proper hygiene, noting that the “rules to reduce skin contact with workout equipment have been in place since the facility opened.”   

He said the dress code requiring midriffs to be covered is in place exclusively for sanitary purposes and that it applies to both men and women.

Chloe Karayiannis, a RISD student, had a similar experience this winter break when an employee approached her about her workout attire, she said.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not it applies to men as well because it’s sending the message that what I’m wearing is not respectable and associates what I’m wearing with respect,” she said.

There are “so many mixed messages in society,” she said. “Most advertisements show women working out in sports bras,” she added. “That’s the norm in marketing, and then it’s suddenly immodest in the Brown gym?”

While the University is not altering the dress policy, “this is a good opportunity to have a conversation about these issues,” said Deputy Director of Athletics Colin Sullivan.

The Nelson Fitness Center employee who asked Karayiannis to leave said that her skin exposure could make other gym goers uncomfortable, Karayiannis said.

Dimitroff said that she sees the dress code, which requires individuals to cover their midriff, as targeting women just to make men more comfortable.

“It’s kind of odd to place the blame on women and the way that women dress,” Dimitroff said. “It seems to be that this policy blames women for something that men need to change about how they view women’s bodies.”

But Bishoff and Sullivan refuted the employee’s argument that Karayiannis’ wardrobe made others uncomfortable as reasoning for the policy.

“We need to continue to have conversations with our staff if one of these individuals felt that the reason for our dress code was about something other than hygiene,” Sullivan said.

Both Karayiannis and Dimitroff were surprised this happened on Brown’s campus.

“I felt angry, especially that it was the Brown gym,” Dimitroff said.  “This seems like such a liberal setting, and usually the school is more progressive on these kinds of things.”

Athena Washburn ’18 disagreed with the University’s dress code, saying “sweaty thighs are just as bad as a sweaty torso, and women are more likely to be wearing outfits that expose their midriffs, so it’s an unfair policy.” Julianna Brown ’18 agreed with Washburn, saying that she did not “understand why midriffs specifically need to be covered.”

Some students understood the University’s reasoning.

“It makes sense that the University would want students to cover their midriff to reduce the amount of skin contact to equipment,” said Andrew Thomson ’18. “As long as it applies equally to men and women, then it’s a fair policy.”       

“We don’t want anybody to feel that this is targeted at them,” Bishoff said. “These rules apply to all genders, all ages, all populations. There’s no bias whatsoever.”


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