During a talk on cybernetics last night in class, the topic of The Body came up (it always comes up.) Do our bodies disappear behind screens as we invest more and more into our digital/cyber/cybernetic/cylon selves? Some of the literature may give that illusion, but our bodies remain a material presence in our lives at least in no one else’s.
So naturally, I started thinking about my body specifically in the context of my academic life.
My first thought was: I’m fucking cold. That seminar room was miserable.
My second thought(s): these tights are digging into my stomach fat but at least the lovely pink-on-pink brocade fabric of my dress is comfortable and warm, my bun is pulling at my scalp, I can feel my face getting greasy as my makeup goes on its 9th hour of wear, but at least I’m pretty sure my eyeliner is still perfect, my brows are on fleek (yeah, I know, how 2015 of me), and my lipstick is still vibrant and beautiful (a nice bright coral orange, a change from my usual favorites like gray and teal and black).
But my final and most pressing thought was and remains how do the aesthetic choices I make about my body every morning alter perceptions of me within academia? I was without a doubt wearing more makeup than every other woman in that room combined, and a quick Google search reveals that spoiler alert!: apparently I don’t do a great job at situating myself visually within my profession. I’ve known this for some time, and while it used to be an advantage when I was teaching at a German university as far as an easy way of connecting to students, now that I’m back in America the paradoxically always-but-never old conversation about how women in academia should dress finally feels relevant, and I’m already fucking tired of it.
Back in 2014, when I was happily ignoring this discourse (oops my bad), Johnathon Wolff caused quite the e-stir with his illuminating article “Why do academics dress so badly? (Answer: they are too happy)” and there were many immediate responses, such as “Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed.” My personal favorite from Wolff’s article came when he advised how to be the best dressed in the room in order to ensure making a good professional impression: “For a woman, a Hermès scarf should be enough to swing the vote.” Um sure bro. I’ll just toss on that Hermès scarf I have just laying around, probably under a pile of dirty period underwear (oops, not supposed to mention the fun biological reality of being a woman in public!), over the rest of my thrifted “professional” dress items, which I’m sure are a poor attempt at translating a male aesthetic to the female form because as Hil’s legendary pantsuit collection shows us, to project power in almost all professional fields means to project a definitely penile aura. PS: Where the fuck am I supposed to get the coins for an Hermès scarf if I have a ONE IN FOUR SHOT OF GETTING A JOB IN MY FIELD?
So here we are almost three years later and the aesthetic stylization of the female body is still an issue, albeit maybe a small one in comparison to other disturbing conversations about how, you know, apparently my entire body is just a host lying in wait for impregnation (who cares what my body looks like as long as its nice and full of fetus?) So maybe it comes off as entitled and whiney that I’m bitching about how my choice to wear black lipstick and three different highlighters at once plays such a huge (read: hugely negative) role in establishing myself as a serious scholar. But if I can’t feel comfortable in my own skin (and hey, at least my skin is white and that is a privilege I can never nor should I ever try to argue away), then how am I supposed to project power? I don’t feel powerful in what I’m “supposed” to wear, in fact, I feel powerless when I wear pantsuits and plain colors and minimal or no makeup, not because there isn’t a certain power in those aesthetic choices (hey girl heyyyyy, Hil!), but because I’ve had to give up my own personal aesthetic identity in order to meet the standards of success in my profession.
So, I have two conferences coming up this month, and I’ve been agonizing over what to wear on my body and face since I got accepted to both. I’m not naive enough to ignore the fact that there is of course an accepted etiquette in such situations (leggings and teal lipstick might not be venue appropriate), and I will respect that etiquette, but I can’t guarantee that you won’t be able to see my highlight in the back of the room.
PS: Who cares what I have to say, go read this gorgeous article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion?”