Is TSA now the Nipple Police?

Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder has an interesting story about how his 15 year old daughter was verbally harangued by a TSA agent at LAX for reportedly not wearing age-appropriate clothing while flying.

The girl was going through the security line at Los Angeles International Airport when she handed a Transportation Security Agency (TSA) agent her ID, right before you go through the metal detectors, and he reportedly mumbled something to her.  She couldn’t understand him, but got a bad vibe about it, so she asked him, “excuse me?”  He then replied:

“You’re only 15, COVER YOURSELF!”

There are a lot of issues involved here.  First, you can check out what the girl might have been wearing, via a photo on Boing Boing’s site (I say “might” because we don’t know whether or not she was wearing the jacket, though Boing Boing’s Frauenfelder argues that it doesn’t matter what she was wearing – and a reader notes that TSA probably made her take it off to go through the X-ray, so if anything it’s their fault).


UPDATE: A friend I’ve known for years read this column and then told me about her experience last year when a TSA agent criticized her when her belly-button showed as she was trying to put her belt back on after going through airport security.


TSA as Nipple Police

As for the issues, I think the TSA agent crossed the line, but it’s important to think through the layers here, so here goes.

1. Should anyone comment on what you’re wearing, ever?

Frauenlender interviews a woman who says that telling a woman to “cover up” is a “Taliban-y” thing, and fuels the oppression of women.

Maybe, but then I’d have to ask if it’s ever appropriate to find someone’s dress, of any gender, at any time, inappropriate?

What about Gay Pride parades?

"Does this TSA agent make me look fat?" Carolina K. Smith MD /

“Does this TSA agent make me look fat?” (Carolina K. Smith MD /

I’ve written before about my disdain for public nudity at Gay Pride parades (which you see less and less of nowadays, as compared to before).  We’ve had floats with men wearing leather chaps with their bare bottom 100% exposed for public viewing, and bare-chested women riding motorcycles.  And in this year’s DC Pride parade there was as delightful float of guys wearing the thinnest of thongs, and the guys would jump up and down so their penises would flail around wildly and obviously.  I like penises, but tend to prefer mine on-demand, like Netflix.  If I consent to seeing you naked in public, go for it.  But don’t impose it on people at a public parade.

My point is bringing up Pride is that I don’t think it’s always Taliban-y to judge someone else’s clothing choices.  Though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t Taliban-y in the TSA case.

Now, is there any comparison between the Pride example and the TSA story?  Do the genders of the people involved matter?  Is it more oppressive to criticize a woman’s clothing than a man’s?  I’d argue that the bare-chested women in Pride parades deserves just as much discussion and derision as bare-butted men.  But, the TSA story wasn’t involving nudity, so perhaps that’s the difference.

What if the TSA agent had been a woman criticizing a man’s clothing?

Would it have been any less Taliban-y if the TSA agent had been a woman?  And what if the female TSA agent had been criticizing a man for wearing one of those unfortunate tank tops that swoop all the way down to your belt?  Would that be just as wrong as a TSA criticizing a female passenger?  Does the history of the discrimination women have faced, and the manner in which clothing is often used as a vehicle for that discrimination, make a difference?

I bristle at the notion that it’s impossible for a 15 year old girl to ever dress inappropriately in public, though that’s a separate question from whether anyone should ever comment on it.  And with that in mind, it’s possible that that isn’t what the woman interviewed in the other story was arguing.  She might have been saying that regardless of whether the girl was dressed appropriately, people often use criticism of clothing to put women down.  And that’s a fair point.  But does that mean that we should never discuss the way women dress – even public nudity at Pride parades? – and if so, does it mean that we also put criticism of male clothing off limits too?

Abuse of authority

I appreciate that lots of folks are going to say “who cares how anyone dresses,” but I’ll bet you that privately lots of us judge the way other people dress on a daily basis.  But we don’t let our private views be known, and that brings us to point 2….

2. It’s especially creepy when a TSA agent, on the job, criticizes your clothing.

TSA agents are quasi-cops.  And it’s bad enough that anyone in a job serving the public would comment on someone’s clothing in a negative way, but it’s even creepier when it’s a cop, someone in a position of authority over you, someone who can get you into a lot trouble.

I worked a number of jobs serving the public, from congressional staffer to waiter, and I’d never have dreamed of commenting negatively on the clothing a constituent, or customer, was wearing – whether I thought it or not.  So one wonders if, in this case, some of the “power” of the TSA wasn’t going to this agent’s head.

It really is an interesting anecdote because it gets into so many larger questions about how we treat the sexes, but also our puritanism as a culture, and whether any cultural norm, at least with regards to publicly exposing our bodies, is ever valid.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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