Evolution of the Ideal Dartmouth Woman

by Sarah Alpert | 10/16/18 2:10am


Before Dartmouth went coeducational in the 1970s, there weren’t as many college-aged women in the Hanover area. Dartmouth men needed a way to find dates, and one solution was to invite young women to attend the annual Winter Carnival. 

In 1923, the tradition of the “Snow Queens” was born. Every year for 50 years, a panel of judges –– or fraternity brothers –– would select winter carnival dates to enter a beauty contest, crowning the woman with the greatest “beauty, charm and personality.”

Here was an early instance of Dartmouth students judging women based on appearances. Although the Carnival Queens tradition ended in 1973, just after the first class of women matriculated in 1972. Female students remained subject to physical appraisals by their peers, now required to look “sexy” in order to fit in on Dartmouth’s culturally masculine campus.

For example, in 1987, Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity released a flyer for their annual beach party. “Regulations of 13 Webster Beach Club” amounted to a body-shaming and objectifying dress-code, with stipulations such as “All beached whales will be harpooned,” and “Excess clothing will be removed.” A woman’s attendance at the party depended on her willingness to dress in revealing clothes, display herself as a sex object and comply with Regulation No. 8: “Everyone gets lei’d.”

By the 1990s, Dartmouth women began confronting problematic beauty standards on campus through feminist writing. "Inner Bitch" was a radical magazine that released two issues in the early '90s. Issue 1 contained a diagram of the “Ideal Woman,” replete with sassy descriptions of feminine beauty ideals, such as “eyebrows removed, then penciled back in,” “damaged hair from over-processing,” “waxes legs & arms every 3 weeks. youch!” and “bulimic since age 13.” Instead of polished, hyper-maintained femininity, the writers of Inner Bitch promoted a bold, assertive  attitude and style.

Spare Rib took a more didactic approach. In Volume 3, Issue 2 of the newspaper, Vanessa Butnick ’95 wrote an article titled “Fighting the Mirror Image,” in which she discusses her personal struggle with eating disorders and the way Dartmouth culture “pressures” women to be thin.

“Dartmouth applies a very direct pressure to women, with social forces on all sides demanding rigorous attention to appearance," she wrote. "Claims of the intellectualism and general superiority of Dartmouth students were often undercut by a pervasive desire in the male community to turn their life into an extended beer commercial; it seemed their sole desire was to be surrounded by attractive women and presented with an unlimited supply of alcohol. The way to fit in on this campus was either to be one of those women or to be a man.” 

Traci Scharf '97 also condemned female beauty standards in the piece. “A thin vertical line with a head on top,” Scharf writes. “Is that the shape of a woman?” 

Twenty years after coeducation, Dartmouth women still felt like they had to conform to rigid beauty expectations simply to earn a place on campus. While men could fit in simply due to their intelligence, women needed to be beautiful, desirable, sexy –– and in the ’90s, that meant being extraordinarily, and often unhealthily, thin. 

Fast-forward another twenty years. Do Dartmouth’s beauty standards of the ’80s and ’90s persist today? 

Despite the recent plus-size model movement and embrace of natural beauty in the media, I think the ’90s emphasis on thinness still echoes through our present society. At Dartmouth, these standards manifest primarily in our school-wide preoccupation with exercise and activity.

Although Sydney Nguyen ’21 has not seen any “outright [body-shaming]” at Dartmouth, Nguyen acknowledges that health is a prominent topic on campus. 

“[There’s] a really big emphasis on health … I feel like there’s a lot of pressure for people to try and go out and be fit, or work out to be skinny,” Nguyen said.

Since students in her dance group are particularly fit, Nguyen feels like she has to lose weight to blend in. Just like the female students of the ’90s, Nguyen feels “pressure” to conform to a particular body ideal at Dartmouth.

On the other hand, Sarah Solomon ’21 believes that Dartmouth students hesitate to judge each other based off physical appearance.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who explicitly or [knowingly] judges people based on physical appearances,” Solomon said. “I think it’s more implicit biases, and you can see the ramifications of those, but … if you were to ask anyone in particular, ‘Do you judge people based on physical appearance?’ I think most people would say no, and I think most people try not to.”

Explicit judgment aside, Alex Conway ’20 finds that beauty standards subtly affect how women are perceived on campus. 

“Whether you shave your legs or shave your armpit, you can totally hear people making rude comments about that, and that’s a personal choice. It’s just so unfair that women aren’t given the same freedom to do that,” Conway said. “And obviously we have the right to do that, but it’s more the social freedom: can you do it without fear of social ridicule? I think for a large majority of women, the answer is no.”

It seems that Dartmouth culture sets even stricter expectations for clothes than for physical appearances, especially for women. Ruthie Nordhoff ’20 thinks that women at Dartmouth are expected to “put a lot of time and effort into how they look,” whereas guys can get away with wearing casual clothes for most occasions.

“I think a lot of people, and specifically a lot of women, at Dartmouth, have made it here because we’ve had to meet all and exceed all expectations. You have to be on top of your game, you have to have perfect grades, you have to go to all your meetings,” Nordhoff said. “You have to be presentable, and for women that means being the right amount of sexual and the right amount of beautiful and the right amount of smart, but also you still drink –– but not too sloppy drunk.”

According to Nordhoff, women are expected to have two different wardrobes, one for daytime wear, and one for going out — the going out outfit being “specifically skimpier or tighter-fitting.” 

These expectations trace back to Alpha Chi’s 1987 flier. Even today, a perfect Dartmouth woman must transform from talented student to sexy party girl, simply by removing her glasses and donning a revealing top. 

Of course, Dartmouth fashion also reflects a culture of economic privilege. When she arrived in Hanover her freshman year, Nordhoff was shocked at how well, and how expensively, many Dartmouth students dressed. 

“At home, if someone had a North Face, that’s crazy rich … And here, I didn’t even know there were jackets that cost more than a hundred and fifty dollars, and people just wear them around and leave them on the ground,” Nordhoff said. “That’s a lot to see, and definitely affects your expectations of what you’re wearing.”

With social and economic privilege, however, also comes privilege to break the rules. Conway noted that if you belong to a close-knit community on campus, you earn “social power” that allows you to dress in ridiculous clothes, or “flair,” without fear of judgment. Freshmen women, on the other hand, might feel more pressure to dress nicely. 

“I think, also, freshmen women can put that pressure on themselves because when you come to college it’s natural to feel insecure, and then you want to look your best to feel your best,” Conway said.

Although the rules governing what women can or cannot wear may seem burdensome, Dartmouth also leaves room for different kinds of self-expression. 

“Our community is special in that I think we do value pragmatism a little more than other college campuses and other places, like how Patagonia is one of the top brands, or Canada Goose. It’s good outdoors clothing, not necessarily just name-brand fashion,” Solomon said.

Conway also finds that trends like “Enginearings,” laser-cut wooden earrings designed by Thayer graduate student Morgan McGonagle, reflect Dartmouth students’ alternative senses of style. 

“It seems cliché to say that Dartmouth has a crunchier style, but you will see a lot of people walking around in Patagonia shorts and hiking boots … If you were wearing those things at Alabama, you might get some funny looks, like, ‘What does she think she’s doing, going on a hike?’ Whereas here, that’s a totally real possibility,” Conway said. “It’s almost like we have more functional clothing opportunities simply because of the adventure at our fingertips.” 

Dartmouth culture is far from perfect, and women and other marginalized groups still face undue pressure to look and dress certain ways in order to fit in. 

On a positive note, however, we now define beauty in terms of fitness, rather than promoting unhealthy body images, and our fashion trends reflect relatively practical ideals. We’ve come a long way since the overt judgments of Winter Carnival beauty contests, but we still have many miles to go before Dartmouth is truly accepting of all identities and appearances.