The Impact of Attire in Speech and Debate

Athena Tian | 9/10/22

Speech and debate is an art form which is judged too often on the perception which a competitor gives, or fails to give, to their judges. Ranging from a competitor’s school affiliation, gender, quality of their bandwidth or background environment, signs of a foreign background, to the highly infamous lay judges who compensate for their lack of experience in judging argumentation by ranking competitors on the basis of how much confidence or volume their voices exude, it’s an understatement to say that perception of a person’s identity and skill level can profoundly impact a student’s experience in speech and debate - competitively, recreationally, and post-graduation benefits. However, in addition to the aforementioned characteristics which can make or break a judge’s proper evaluation and adjudication of a competitor/s skill level, one indicator and basis for perception encompasses all of them in one and can sometimes accentuate the qualities of a debater’s identity which can influence their overall experience while participating in speech and debate: the pieces of fabric which are worn on their body while they deliver arguments and performances.

Formal blazers, suits, ties, heels, pearl necklaces, and pencil skirts are one of the marquee factors which give speech and debate tournaments the unique energy which motivates competitors to keep sacrificing money, weekends, social gatherings, and external commitments in order to engage with the community of like-minded competitors and friends. However, while the custom of youthful competitors dressing in extremely formal wear has been met with a variety of problems that have revealed themselves alongside the evolution and expansion of speech and debate to one of the most popular and adaptable activities for secondary school students in the United States.

“This unwinnable bias is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we have often become blind to its consequences.” - Ella Schnake. Take a walk around a speech and debate tournament and it’s all too easy to notice that an outfit deviates even slightly from what is traditionally expected. An elegant blouse with short sleeves, shoes which do not give blisters to the feet, untucked shirts, and top’s without a blazer put over it stick out like a sore thumb against the crowd of mostly black formal suits, ties, blazers, jackets, full length pants, knee-length skirts, and closed toe leather shoes. Automatically, without even opening their mouths, the competitor which lacks the full body of stereotypical and high-end debate attire has made a statement for themselves and subconsciously given themselves a reputation and expectation in the eyes of their fellow competitors and judges alike. For humans the formation of a first impression occurs rapidly, but the little information that a person needs to form an initial judgment can have long-lasting effects on other attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that a person demonstrates to another (Gillath). In context with attire at forensic events, studies have shown that by viewing photographs of a stranger’s shoes, randomly selected survey participants were able to predict the owner’s personal characteristics with astounding accuracy which depicts the incredible human nature, as well as the deep concern that a debater’s appearance could evoke more complex perceptions than previously acknowledged (Gillath). Other participants in the aforementioned study were able to accurately judge the age, income, and attachment anxiety level of the shoe owner based on photographs provided to them. A study from Psychology Today involving hundreds of participants demonstrated that people who appeared overweight in professional environments were perceived as warmer and more emotionally expressive, but on the contrary, less attractive, less competent, and possessing less self-control (Emanzadeh). While the age and external appearance of a speech and debate competitor may not be significantly altered with a selection of clothing, the ability of a person’s outfit to make such a lasting impression on a competitor’s income level and anxiety level present serious concerns in the fair and non discriminant adjudication of speech and debate performance.

Recent psychological studies have shown that people are likely to have higher trust in strangers if they have a higher income, compared to those relatively less fortunate. In the academic world, students from families with relatively high household income were expected by strangers to have better academic performance than those from lesser means (Qi). Such a subconscious trend proves dangerous for the authenticity and integrity of speech and debate competition, in that competitors with clothing that appears more expensive and classy, compared to those who cannot afford new outfits and laptop bags add yet another disadvantage to the list of disparities that they lack in comparison to their more affluent counterparts. With regards to anxiety, when speech and debate is an activity centered around the masterful delivery of a verbal presentation under high-pressure and high-stakes situations, judges entering a round with the perception and expectation that certain competitors suffer from higher levels of anxiety make them prone to being more critical while evaluating every presentational aspect of the competitor's delivery to spot any potential signs of anxiety or excessive nervousness. Consequently, the judge is divergent from the competitor’s argument or blocking, and is unable to provide proper feedback on those aspects of a competitor’s skillset.

Beyond the issue of perception, the lack of flexibility in what is perceived as appropriate and fitting for a speech and debate competition is limiting and uncomfortable to the ever-increasing diversity which the community of forensics wishes to include in their future moving forwards together, away from a period of uncertainty and political unrest surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. While business attire, such as that commonly seen in forensics, is founded on gender-based principles that favor modestly covering people with slim bodies which adhere to stereotypical beauty standards, the boundary of blazers, knee-length skirts, formal pants, ties, and leather dress shoes as the sole attire that is seen as pertinent to speech and debate competitions and branding has perpetually excluded participants who have physical disabilities, plus-sized or petite physique and who are gender-nonconforming.

To those fortunate enough to not experience struggles related to disabilities, body image, or gender expression, the outfit that one is permitted to wear to an academic competition may appear as insignificant or even frivolous. However, for those who have, the internal insecurity that is caused by the restrictions placed on one’s attire can significantly affect performance, confidence level, or even the willingness to engage in any public speaking activities such as speech and debate. And these struggles may not be apparent - on the surface, I am an able-bodied woman with body proportions that do not often attract strange looks in the vast majority of settings. In spite of this physical appearance, my past struggles with body image and a several-year struggle with an eating disorder spurred by my culture and engagement in sports with restrictive expectations for what a successful athlete’s body should look and weigh have lasted into the world of forensics, where such struggles should be embraced and tolerated, not emphasized. Form fitting and feminine blazers on top of poorly-fitting pants which flaunted to the public and had to be adjusted for the slightest fluctuation in weight caused me more than physical discomfort - rather recalled painful memories of unsolicited comments on my appearance and every change that came with the process of aging through childhood which was presented to me negatively. Unfortunately, among the teenagers which dominate the speech and debate world, I am far from alone in this struggle - 77.6% of high school-aged girls were dissatisfied with the appearance of their bodies (Ganesan) and 11% of teens identifying with various genders had been formally diagnosed with behaviors severe enough to be categorized as an eating disorder (Eating Disorder Hope). In reality, this number is most likely higher due to the lags in detection, diagnosis, and reporting that exist in healthcare data.

While the community of forensics is often touted as a safe haven for participants to gain confidence, physically and expressively restrictive clothing options have done just the opposite for some. Experts in the field have reported that clothing choice is mainly correlated with three internal factors of a person’s everyday life: self-esteem, confidence, and mental illness. Should simple insecurities persist, common consequences were noted to include people stopping themselves from being bold and forming relationships, avoiding activities which include showing themselves to the public, and in some cases, depression, anxiety, overthinking, decrease in productivity, and eating disorders (Bains). Furthermore, allowing a more appropriate range of accepted attire aids queer competitors who are gender nonconforming or prefer to dress more androgynous than the stereotypical business formal standards allow for. The current generation of debaters reign from an era which has seen strides such as openly sharing and adhering to a competitor’s preferred name and pronouns, and even more in breaking boundaries in what is stereotypcally seen as feminine and masculine in clothinge - surveys showed that only 44% of Generation Z has restricted their wardrobe to outfits that were initially designed for thier own sex (Hofbauer) and likewise to how clothing choices can profoundly impact those who have struggled with body image, the freedom of expression given to those who express their gender identity in unique ways is no different and of no less importance.

What can the members of speech and debate, from the new competitors to the established coaches and competition directors do moving forwards to retain talented and diverse competitors who do not feel comfortable with the archaic dress standards of speech and debate competition?

Firstly, competitors who face the barrier of exclusion can explore options for more affordable and environmentally sustainable outfitters. These places can include Amazon, thrift stores, locally-based small businesses, Goodwill centers, and retired outfits of parents, siblings, friends, and teammates. For those who have the desire to expand their horizons and participate in speech and debate competitions, the cost of attaining a situation-appropriate outfit should not be the straw that breaks the camel's back on top of the other sacrifices required for engagement with competitive experiences.

Secondly, tournaments should remove a competitor’s institutional affiliation when listing them on schematics or ballots for judges. Listing the school from which the competitor attends can form a variety of unjust perceptions in the eyes of evaluators: schools in more economically prosperous areas or private schools give the perception of a competitor being more qualified simply due to the resources that they hypothetically have access to in contrast to their peers in Title I or overcrowded schools. Evaluating the attire and perceived cost of the attire, with the knowledge of the type of school that a competitor attends combines for an evaluation and critique which is far too heavily reliant upon the background, not current ability level, of the competitor. At national level tournaments, the political affiliations and stereotypes surrounding the state which the competitor represents can lead to increased scrutiny of a competitor’s appearance, outfit choice, accent, and any political opinions or morals which may be expressed as a part of their presentational delivery.

Finally, those with higher power in speech and debate should do everything possible to encourage their students, if desired, to move beyond the traditional standards for proper attire and perform in what will aid their delivery and confidence. Coaches should report any comments that are made to their students regarding their physical appearance or choice of outfit to tournament directors, who should subsequently suspend the inappropriate judge for a minimum of one year. Tournament officials should publicize and enforce a loose fitting dress code that consists of a shirt, bottoms of some sort, and close-toed shoes - excluding any other restrictions or recommendations that may be made to schools and competitors. Team captains and more experienced debaters should also reiterate to younglings and prospective debaters that rounds should be won on the merits of argumentation, delivery, and skill - in this way, a new generation more tolerant judges is developed without such a strong perception of a competitor’s skill level and characteristics based on their appearance.