OPINION: 5C students should not be subject to regressive ideas of modesty

The Pomona Office of Communications censored this photo of the author after she submitted it as part of an Instagram takeover, writes guest columnist Eshanya Agrawal PO ’25. (Courtesy: Eshanya Agrawal)

I come from a country where writing poetry about bisexuality almost got me suspended from high school. During our senior farewell, our principal did not let three girls attend because the saris they wore were backless. Even at home, it is considered a normal occurrence for parents to police their daughters’ clothing. 

I chose Pomona College hoping for an experience that was liberal in the truest sense. However, recent instances make me doubt the ideals that liberal arts institutions claim to uphold. I’ve been forced to follow the same regressive misogynistic stereotypes that have been ever-present my entire life. In reality, institutions exhibit biases that lead them to promote societal norms that are backward and disrespectful to their student body. As a student who stands in opposition to these norms, I wrote this article because I believe it is my duty to constantly push society into doing better. 

On Jan. 20, I was asked by the Office of Communications to do an Instagram takeover about a day in my life as a student on Pomona’s official page. When I first emailed the office my picture and bio for the introductory post, this was the reply I received: “One thing, do you have any other photos? It would be great to have a few to select from for the initial post. Just a reminder this post, and your stories will be shared with our 14k followers. Thanks!”

In response, I sent five more images in the same outfit, intending to challenge them to express their issue with my picture. Instead, I received a short thank you from the individual who I’d been emailing with. The next day, my bio and a zoomed in, poor quality, cropped headshot was up on Pomona’s official Instagram. 

Frustrated, I wrote another email expressing my concerns about the cropped picture. In response, the individual wrote: “I honestly was not sure how to talk with you about the photos you sent, because I understand you are an adult and clothing is an important form of self-expression. But I was unable to post the whole photo because it looked like your undergarments were showing and we did not think it was appropriate to share on the College’s official Instagram.”

“You can send me a selfie, or another photo and I will see if we can post that.”

“Thank you.”

At this time, I decided to end my Instagram takeover. I informed the department that I would not partake in a misrepresentation of the Pomona student body, and that, as I wrote to the Office of Communications, “I [would] not stand by censoring my clothes …simply to uphold a misguided reputation for this institution.” When they cropped my image, it was not just modifying my picture; they cropped my identity and they shunned what I am comfortable with. My unique identity, instead of being acknowledged and accepted, as the Instagram takeover claimed to do, was being censored; and I was not going to condone it.

The department explained that even though the sentiments relayed to me over email were “expressed badly, the communications department stood by their sentiment” which was apparently to “protect [emphasis mine] me from [their] 14k viewers.” This exculpatory statement is a cover-up using victim blaming to justify their actions.

Afterward, I went completely numb. If not for my friends, I would not even have realized what happened was so unacceptable because of the extreme policing I have had to deal with for 19 years. 

I felt like I was back in high school, where every in-house publication circulated around our campus went through regressive checks for political or social critiques, and anyone who dared to cross them was punished. News reports about esteemed politicians making horrific statements like “women who wear ripped jeans should not be allowed to be mothers” were so common that most days there was this constant gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness at the pit of my stomach. 

This pit was back, and it made me realize just how deep the roots of misogyny have to be in society for women to perpetuate these sexist norms on women themselves at a place like this. 

These reflections were central in spurring my actions. I decided to end the takeover so as to not participate in promoting an institution that makes its students question their judgment and clothing because unlike Pomona College, my appearance is concordant with my value system. It was an unfortunate realization that I am in fact part of an institution that is liberal merely in pretentious performativity. 

The department’s actions should not set a precedent, and I can only hope that the department realizes that victim blaming does not validate what is fundamentally sexist, backward and hurtful. This is not the Pomona that I aspire to attend.

So many universities and firms across America pride themselves over their diverse student body or workforce, burnishing their image as institutions that value individuality and differences. In reality, most fall short on their promises of upholding standards that promote an environment that is truly free from bias. The brochures are misleading, because the fine print (as seen through the emails quoted above) spells out double standards that are not representative and promote censorship under the false pretense of “protection.”

My experience made me realize that censorship is truly inescapable unless there is real systemic change, which is only possible if people are called out for their biases and pushed  to rectify the harms they cause. I am choosing to articulate my lived experience because I hope that the aforementioned practices are discontinued, while the administration takes the time to reflect on their actions and move forward with the right intent. I also hope more people speak up when institutions or individuals force them to conform to certain standards that do not reflect their identity, so that this pit of helplessness can disappear, for good.

Guest columnist Eshanya Agrawal PO ’25 is from Raipur, India. She enjoys poetry, hikes and being able to wear what she wants.

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