Another day, another woman reportedly removed from a flight because “families”. This time, it was Turkish influencer and bodybuilder Deniz Saypinar, who says she tried to board an American Airlines flight from Texas to Miami and was refused entry to the plane because her outfit — a brown tank top and a pair of denim shorts — was considered potentially offensive to the innocent eyes of Americans flying to a beach destination where literally everyone they see will be wearing a bikini. According to Saypinar, she was told by staff that she was basically “naked”. Her version of events is backed up by an unapologetic statement from the airline itself, which stated: “On 8 July, American Airlines denied boarding for a customer traveling from Dallas-Fort Worth to Miami. As stated in the conditions of carriage, all customers must dress appropriately and offensive clothing isn’t permitted on board our flights.”
Most airlines have policies on “offensive clothing” which are deliberately vague. It makes sense to do it that way: you can’t necessarily predict what a passenger might do, and you need to have plausible deniability when you ask them to please change the T-shirt that prominently displays a racial slur or the winter bedspread attached to their body by five belts in place of a coat (the latter is an actual example my husband saw on his flight last week.) These policies are supposed to protect the safety and comfort of passengers: it’s safe to say that a Black person might feel unsafe seated next a someone wearing a racist slur across their chest, or that any passenger’s ability to sit comfortably might be impeded by someone swaddled in a gigantic blanket. In rare cases — like on Saudia, the Saudi Arabian airline — the clothing policies are more strict and descriptive. Saudia reflects its country’s hardline ideological stance through the enforcement of a dress code on flights that asks women to wear clothing which is loose and made of thick material, and which fully covers arms and legs. Men on Saudia flights are asked not to wear shorts.
It’s strange, then, that airlines in the US have started enforcing their dress code along ideological lines, Saudia-style, rather than what they were originally intended for: safety and common sense. In recent years, we’ve seen a spate of women — and it is, as far as I can tell, only women — being denied boarding for the perceived sexiness of their clothes. In October 2020, Kayla Eubanks said she was refused boarding by Southwest Airlines because her halter-neck top — which she had paired with a full-length skirt — was seen as “lewd, obscene and offensive” and was only eventually allowed to travel because she agreed to put on a spare captain’s T-shirt. In January 2020, Andrea Worldwide said she was pulled out of line by United Airlines employees and told that the T-shirt she was wearing — underneath a cardigan and a long scarf — might be too low-cut for her to board, before staff changed their mind and allowed her to go ahead (she was given a $200 voucher but said she’d been left feeling publicly humiliated, “embarrassed and confused”.) In March 2017, United reportedly denied three young girls boarding because they were wearing leggings (one was later allowed to fly; the other two were not.)
That airlines in America would go to such lengths to police women and girls is disturbing, not least because gate agents and flight attendants are supposed to be there for your safety. They are not supposed to be there to take a good look at a woman’s cleavage or the curve of her ass in shorts and decide whether it might turn on the male passengers so much that they… well, that they do what exactly? Something for which those women will ultimately be held accountable? “What separates us from animals if humans can’t control even their most primitive impulses?” said Deniz Saypinar today on an Instagram post describing her experience, and one does wonder.
The idea that the very sight of women’s bodies drive men to crime and ruin is offensive to both sexes. It’s also ridiculous for a number of very obvious reasons: Do larger-breasted women need to wear different clothes to smaller-breasted women? At what stage of puberty do teenage girls become policed by whether their shorts are too high or too tight? Does a portly man in a tight T-shirt get policed on his breast tissue? And who exactly decides what counts as “too sexy” — does there need to be consensus? Should the potentially offensive customer be paraded in front of every passenger and/or every nearby airline employee and judged on their attractiveness?
Needless to say, these issues are also a legal minefield for airlines. It’s well-established that women of color, especially Black women and girls, are often judged to be more mature and more sexual than their white counterparts. This racist “Jezebel stereotype” might easily inform any person’s judgment on the job, unwittingly or no. What happens if an airline is found to have disproportionately stopped women of color for spurious dress code violations? What happens when a refunded ticket or a $200 voucher isn’t enough to paper over the prejudice?
It’s almost as if the simplest solution might be for everyone to let women wear what they like and to concentrate on getting everyone to their destination safely. American Airlines, take note.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies