Today a student in my class came to my office to turn in a homework assignment. Out of the blue she said to me, “This has nothing to do with the class, but can I just say I really like the way you dress!” It got me thinking about all of the attention being paid lately to how appearance affects being a female academic. First, it was the sexy PhD Halloween costume and associated comments by actual women PhDs. Have you seen this costume? I am a woman with a PhD and I can say with complete confidence, women with PhDs, even sexy ones, wouldn’t wear that. And why does the costume look like a bad high school graduation robe? When you get a PhD you are regaled with a hood – where’s the hood?
Next came the piece on theguardian.com by Francesca Stavrakopoulou entitled Female Academics: Don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. In the piece Francesca, who is a female academic, discusses how female academics get more attention paid to their appearance than male academics, and that dressing too feminine can be thought to detract from the likelihood that people will take you seriously. My question is this: why do we take male academics who don’t brush their hair, have questionable hygiene habits, and wear mismatched clothing from 1989 seriously but have trouble taking a woman in a fashionable dress and heels seriously? Francesca says another female academic once told her that she shouldn’t wear her hair down, but should tie it back so people could concentrate better on what she was saying. As if by wearing your hair down, as a woman, you are inviting people to ignore your scientific contribution, check out of the conversation, and instead blankly stare at your silky mane admiringly. How lame does this woman think academics are that they would be distracted from science by a woman’s hair? The same guys who cannot be bothered to find a pair of socks that match, or buy a new and stylish jacket once in a while, or clean the egg yolk off their ties, are somehow completely incapacitated intellectually by a lady’s long locks? Wow. That is some bullshit right there. Francesca, you keep right on being your beautiful self. Those who care about your work will pay attention, regardless of the length of your hair or the height of your heels.
I, for one, believe everyone should be able to dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable, confident, and attractive, and that depends on the individual’s idea of what is comfortable and what looks good on them. We don’t all agree on what looks best, which is why it is so wonderful that in this country we are free to choose what we want to wear and shop for our own clothes. But the idea that there is a right or a wrong way to dress as a female academic, with no such boundary conditions for men, is ludicrous. (I do think there are inappropriate clothing choices for the workplace that everyone should avoid, such as ultra miniskirts, tube tops, and sheer blouses without proper undergarments – apparently Kim Kardashian didn’t get the memo…oh wait…she doesn’t have a job).
My point is that, just like my uterus, my birth control method, and whether or not I want to get married and have kids, what I wear is MY choice, and personally I dress in a way that reflects my individual style. I wear what I like to wear. I like to look put together. I enjoy following fashion trends and trying the latest styles. I like getting my hair did and having a pretty mani/pedi once in a while. This doesn’t make me less of a scientist, or a professional. It is just part of who I am. A part that I suppressed for a long time because I thought geologists didn’t dress girly.
Last week I found an adorable navy blue, scallop edged romper at TJMaxx for twenty bucks. I tried it on and it fit perfectly. It was comfortable and cute, and could be dressed up for work or down for weekend. I loved it, and snapped it up, imagining which shoes I would pair it with for work the following week. The day I decided to wear it, I put it on with a fitted black blazer, sapphire studs, and leopard print pumps. It was a great little outfit and I felt pretty amazing in it. As I was walking out of my closet I stopped in front of my full-length mirror one more time and actually had a moment when I thought, “Should I be wearing this to work? Is it too girly? Is it too casual?” I stood in front of that mirror, wasting time worrying about what someone at work might think about the outfit. I actually took it off for a few minutes, throwing on a more conservative, mid-calf length dress instead. Then I got pissed. Why was I even worrying about this? It wasn’t like I had on a slutty, inappropriate outfit. And casual…half the men in my department wear a uniform of jeans and Tevas to work. I looked polished and professional, even if I was wearing a romper. It wasn’t neon pink or made out of crushed velvet. It wasn’t low cut, my ass cheeks weren’t hanging out, and it wasn’t too tight. What the fuck was I worried about?
In the end I put that cute little romper back on, with my leopard heels and black blazer, and strutted (oh yes, one must strut in such a get up) out my front door feeling like a million bucks. And here’s the reality – my clothing choices should be the least of anyone’s concerns, and nobody I know really gives a flying fuck what I wear except me. So I better choose something that makes me feel good.
Incidentally, I got more compliments from female students and friends that day than I had in a long time. The outfit was a hit! And you know what? I LOVE that. First, it feels great to have someone tell you that you look adorable (especially at 40, am I right?). Second, if I can garner some attention from young women who might see me, a female scientist, looking stylish and think that is cool, then I am all for it. Maybe as more women become confident in dressing how they choose, young women will start to realize hey, I can be girly and stylish and pay attention to my appearance and STILL be a professional and a scientist. The image of the female scientist will change, and it must change. Girls want to be girls, and that shouldn’t stop them from wanting to be a scientist, or from believing they will be taken seriously in a male dominated field. I shouldn’t be an anomaly, an oddity, or someone who even gets any attention for her appearance. Women dressing like women shouldn’t be cause for concern. It should be celebrated!
And now it is time to plan tomorrow’s outfit. Skinnies and tall boots? A flowy dress and chunky sandals? No matter what I choose, I will feel great, and get a ton of kick ass science done, too.