So I said I was going to talk about budgeting and grad school, but I got derailed. Today, I am going to talk about performing femininity and professionalism. Today, I am going to talk about how “fashionable” becomes a bad thing. Today, I am going to talk about how a general interest in one’s physical appearance is seen as indicative of a weak mind.
When I went out to interview at different graduate programs, I asked my undergraduate advisor how I should dress for the interview. Her advice: clean clothes, but nothing too dressy. Unlike business or medical school interviews, which often require full suits, graduate programs, at least the ones I was interested in, preferred a more casual look. Even at conferences, slacks and a cardigan is as dressy as I am encouraged to get. At the graduate program, I’ve been given the side-eye for boots that were too, and here I quote, “fashionable.” Spending too much time on one’s appearance, wearing make-up, nail polish, dresses, heels, are all things that are frowned upon.
It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about this stuff a lot. One of my biggest hurdles to overcome was my distaste for all things femme. As a kid, I hated wearing girly clothes, and while I was never wild enough to be full on tomboy (my interest in getting dirty often had to battle with my interest in reading books way above my grade level), I was decidedly not girly. It took a lot of thought and discussion and getting schooled to realize that regardless of what my personal tastes are, there is nothing inherently wrong in embracing the girly-side. Pink isn’t whack. Ruffles aren’t chains of the patriarchy. Putting on lipstick will not drain your brain.
Whatever, I don’t need a cookie for getting through my own internalized sexism (but hey, if you want to give me one, I will take it ““ I never say “no” to baked goods). The point is that academia, as a whole, tends to embrace the idea that femininity is no good. This isn’t paranoia, this isn’t just a neurotic tic ““ while I cannot speak for every program in every university ever, I can say that looking put together is viewed with some suspicion. If you take care of your appearance, suddenly people wonder if you’re a serious academic, as if the color of my nails or the cut of my skirt discredits my intellectual skills.
Lord, lord, lord. All I can do is shake my head. I doubt that anything other than time and a bombardment of intelligent, well-dressed, femme-how-they-want-to academics is going to do any good in this case. I’d say something about how people should embrace their femme sides and flaunt it, just to break those BS stereotypes that pretty girls can’t be smart, that one’s intelligence is inversely related to how many mascaras one owns. But that is also pretty stupid ““ forced femininity is just as ridiculous as forced removal of femininity. There’s no one good way to be, and no matter how much this crusty old system frowns upon fashion, that should not be a deterrent nor should anyone feel shame or guilt for embracing aspects of femininity.
For women in academia, there’s a whole lot of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” floating around. As far as I’m concerned, a healthy dose of “f— the haters” and “I’ll paint my nails if I want to” makes for a pretty good attitude. If a man can look like a hobo and still be highly respected, then a woman should be able to wear a pair of heels. There are too many real things to be worried about (funding, teaching, the job market) to give one of my very limited figs on the secret signals of the color of my nails. You think putting on makeup is frivolous? Well, you’re the one putting in so much effort in judging me based on my style.