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).

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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.

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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 / Shutterstock.com

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

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 | Google+. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • ArthurH

    You run into people like this everywhere. Once when reentering the U.S. from Tiajuana, the Mexican security people were picking every man with a Tom Selleck moustache out of the line for possible strip searching. And entering a building containing a courtroom in Chicago, I saw a plus-size woman humiliated by a security agent with a wand the buzzed when it detected the underwiring in her bra and kept running the wand back and forth under her breasts to delight the other giggling agents. The look that formed on the woman’s face indicated that if she had telekinetic powers, the wand-using agent would have evaporated on the spot never to be seen again.

  • LanceThruster

    Q: Would it then be appropriate to comment on the fact that so very many TSA employees seem to have a marked excess of “junk in the trunk?”

    A: Certainly, if you want to guarantee a secondary inspection.

  • dcinsider

    Unless you are the person’s mother, it is NEVER appropriate to comment directly to the person about their clothes.

    Those comments are meant to be made as snarky asides outside of the person’s hearing.

    Don’t you know gay etiquette?

  • dcinsider

    Unless I’m your mother, it is never appropriate to comment on someone’s clothes.

  • Max_1

    .
    Oh please, now the fascist security police are also the fashion police?

    .

  • http://porcelaintheology.blogspot.com/ KISSman

    It’s not the TSA’s job to be the moral police as well. If the girl’s clothing is acceptable to wear on the plane then it’s not their place to say anything. Actually, it’s not even up to the TSA to determine who is meeting the airlines’ dress code standards or not. The airlines will make that sort of call so, again, it’s not the TSA’s place to say anything about that at all.

    Personally, the way I interpret this male TSA agent’s creepy comment: “You’re only 15 — cover yourself because you’re making me look at you inappropriately.” In other words, his guilt is her fault. After all, if he wasn’t noticing, he wouldn’t have said anything.

  • Whitewitch

    Oh yuck! Seriously, this President. Oh my goddess I hope you set him straight…or errr on the right path

  • Whitewitch

    Oh I totally understand that nicho! Sadly, I have been and continue to be amazed at the scaredness of breasts…they are actually rather a pain in the Rump to take care, water, dress and maintain.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    BTW, John, there was an unrelated point I realized the other day, with respect to the NSA/private-contractor spying on virtually everything going over the internet and phone lines.

    If they’re tracking every financial transaction, email, and phone call, this means the Feds have a de facto secret gun registry. And maintained not by the ATF and the agencies responsible for doing the instant background checks, but through the NSA which is capturing and recording the phone calls and fax transmissions and so on.

    Wouldn’t that realization make the 2nd-amendmenters heads explode, to know that the Feds are already tracking their gun purchases, even those made at gun shows if the buyer happened to use a credit card or a check and not cash?

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    I had a TSA agent almost pull my pants down. I wonder if they would have blamed me.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Europeans may be better about topless beaches, but they don’t really have a consensus on being topless in a parade. :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    When they leak secrets to the Russians, get back to me :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Ha! Okay that’s a really good point!

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    You mentioned that jacket, John, that Frauenfelder’s daughter was wearing in the photo. Actually, it looks like an oversized flannel shirt.

    Funny thing: The TSA would have insisted she take that shirt or jacket or whatever it is off prior to screening.

    But yes, it’s wrong for a TSA agent to criticize people’s clothing choices, especially since much of what people wear now is knowing full well that we have to wear shoes that are easy to take off and gate-rape grope-friendly outerwear. (For example, as a woman, I can tell you that you do NOT want to be selected for “random screening” if you are wearing a skirt.)

  • Indigo

    John, John, John, you’re sounding like the old gandma’ in that yogurt commercial few years back. Gay Pride Parades are about pride in sexuality. Bouncing boobs and wobbling penises are the order of the day. Be not afraid!

  • scottdedalus

    Oh, John, aren’t the people who complain about TSA just being selfish narcissists, eager for their 15 minutes of fame and subverting the work of these good and true public servants?

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Nudity and breasts terrify Americans for some reason. The Europeans think we are absolutely bonkers—-especially the horror of breast feeding women. The touch of Christian Talibanism permeates our prudish Empire.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    The TSA cretins don’t deserve the cover of ‘cops’. They are thugs. The TSA should be disbanded before they turn into brown shirts.

  • nicho

    You have to understand that American have been carefully trained to see the human body as something hideous that should be hidden at all times — except during sex. Therefore, any view of the body is considered a sexual issue.

  • nicho

    Yes, but back then — I remembered those days too — you had some leg room to stretch out and even cross your legs — in coach. Before deregulation, the room in coach seating was more luxurious than in domestic business class today. If you were in an inside seat, you could actually get into the aisle without disturbing the people between you and the aisle. If you were to dress up in coach today, you would look like a refugee from a trash bin by the time you got where you were going. Planes today are nothing more than cargo holds with crappy and crowded seats.

    And, it’s about to get worse. American, whose planes are little more than flying buses, is planning to add more seats, making flying even more stressful and unhealthy.

    http://www.freep.com/article/20130617/BUSINESS07/306170063/American-to-add-more-seats-decrease-legroom

  • nicho

    When you give an otherwise powerless person total power over someone, these sorts of things happen. After all, the TSA agent has the power to make your life miserable — based on nothing more than his or her whim. When you get a guy whose wife won’t do what he says, whose kids ignore him, and whose dog refuses to be housebroken, he’s going to take that out on the people in the security line.

    I was flying out with some friends one day, and we had a choice of security lines. I looked at one line, and the guy running it just set off my alarm bells. I don’t know why. I just heard the bells and saw a flashing sign that said “Asshole.” So, I went to the next line. One of my friends went through Trouble Guy’s line — and sure enough. He put our friend through the wringer — even to the point of a full pat down and going through his carry-on bag.

  • Freday63

    I am old enough to remember when traveling by plane (notice I didn’t say jet) was an event. Men wore ties and sport jackets, women wore hats and gloves…Now it’s guys in their wife-beater t-shirts, shorts and flip flops…I am repulsed more by a 50 year old man’s crusty heels and fungus infested toe nails than anything else…

  • TheOriginalLiz

    The TSA power trip is escalating.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Ive actually never heard that, though the President said it to me the first time I shook his hand!

  • http://www.mikedoughney.com/ MikeDoughney

    How many times have you heard “god bless you” from some TSA-employed Christian wingnut who’s getting off on his god-ordained power trip, inspecting the papers of anyone who dares travel?

  • Whitewitch

    John john john….there is a big difference in judging the apparel of a participant in a parade and a woman, man or child traveling and the judgment of an authority figure. Personally, I always enjoyed the freedom expressed in the DC Pride Parade of women who felt as free to wear no shirt as men have enjoyed for decades……. Sure hot day – off with the shirt for men…really I have seen manboobs that are bigger than many ladies and yet – I have no judgement about them being shirtless.

    As for the TSA – they have one job and one job only…and it does not include judging ANYONE’s apparel.

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