After a fourth-grade teacher in Atlanta posted a photo to Instagram of a dress she wore to work — and the Twitter hashtag #teacherbae gained steam — the results to her outfit were telling.
Although some people were supportive of Patrice “Tricey” Brown, others were critical of her appearance and called her outfits inappropriate for her job. Some of her critics expressed doubt in her ability to teach young children, claiming that students would be distracted by her looks.
The public response to Brown reveals widespread assumptions about the roles of women — particularly women of color — as well as the roles of teachers, who work in a female-dominated profession where they’re seen as caretakers.
— Jules B (@Juicy_JuiceJ) September 12, 2016
It’s common for women to face unfair assumptions about their ability to do their jobs well based on their appearance. A 2015 UK study found that female senior managers who dressed less conservatively were rated less favorably than women in the same role who were dressed more conservatively. Another study published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that women who posted “sexy” photos on social media were more likely to be seen as less competent. Of course, since the idea of what is considered “sexy” is highly subjective, it’s difficult for women to successfully navigate workplace dress codes in a way that doesn’t end up punishing them for their appearance.
As critics of the the teacher’s detractors pointed out, observers may have been sexualizing Brown because of her hourglass figure, not because of the actual clothes she wore to teach fourth graders.
I support #teacherbae not cause she fine but what she was wearing was appropriate, she just has curves, you need relax if your mad.
— Baehaerys Targaryen (@propjoe757) September 12, 2016
And, of course, Brown probably wouldn’t have been sexualized to this degree if she were white. Media portrayals of black women as sexual aggressors are common, and are part of a long history of white people considering the sexuality of black people and black women in particular as belonging to them — attitudes that are rooted in slavery.
“Throughout history it has been expected of the Black woman that her time, her life’s work and her body be used to satisfy other people. So the Black women’s body has been seen as something to be enjoyed by others, but not celebrated herself unless it appeals to the mainstream patriarchal view,” Jessica Ann Mitchell, the founder of OurLegaci.com, said in an interview with Atlanta Black Star about the fetishism of black women in mainstream culture.
If a Black woman has a curvy body she's immediately judged and sexualized for something she has no control over #teacherbae
— Noir Dynamite (@BlackDynamiteJC) September 12, 2016
A black woman's body can easily shake up the world as you see with #TeacherBae
— 💨FreeSmoke💨 (@GarciaVegaGator) September 12, 2016
The fact that teaching remains a female-dominated profession (76 percent of public school teachers are women) may also play a role in how people perceived Brown for simply wearing a dress and documenting her appearance on social media. Female teachers are often viewed as caretakers, especially at the pre-k and elementary school level.
At Blavity, a media company geared toward black millennials, Sesali Bowen points out that the policing of Brown’s clothing may stem from our culture’s discomfort with women in caretaking roles being perceived as attractive:
It’s hard to recognize women as both sexy and moms, teachers, leaders, etc. Don’t believe me? Consider the cliché porn scenes. The sexy teacher, librarian or corporate executive have become the realm of highly arousing sexual fantasy because in real life, we are conditioned not to think of women in those professions as sexy. Furthermore, we never have these conversations about men. Has anyone ever worried about students catching a glimpse of their male gym teacher’s d*ck print in his sweats? Have you ever heard anyone question whether or not a male teacher was too sexy to teach? “I think Mr. Smith is too tall and too bearded to be in the classroom,” said no one ever. It appears that we’re not only poorly informed, but sexist enough to think that policing women is good parenting.
It appears that all of these misogynist and racist attitudes about what black women should wear, how teachers should look, and how women should shoulder responsibility for men’s reactions to their appearance, have fueled the debate over this one teacher’s outfit. It’s no wonder Brown has since made her Instagram account private.