What to Wear?

Feminist scholars aren’t yet liberated from restrictive clothing norms, but at least they think about why they’re wearing what they’re wearing.
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Feminist scholars aren’t yet liberated from restrictive clothing norms, but at least they think about why they’re wearing what they’re wearing.
(Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

Before Powerpoint became ubiquitously doable, I traveled with slides. (You remember 35mm slides?) And I had a little ritual that centered on slides: The night before I had to leave on a speaking trip, I would drive my mate crazy by rushing all around the house demanding, “Have you seen my slides? Where are my slides?!”

Once I moved all my slides to my computer and started doing it all in Powerpoint, I couldn’t do that ritual, so I developed another to drive my mate crazy. Now the night before I leave on a speaking trip, I rush around the house pleading, “What should I wear? Help me figure out what to wear!”

It’s actually a serious problem for me, and not because I’m indecisive about clothes ... although I am indecisive about clothes.

The current system of drug reps is really bad for patients, because it makes many male doctors think that sexy women are more important than evidence, and it perpetuates a system of sexism and heterosexism in medicine.

It’s a problem because each discipline has its own rules about dress, and when, like me, you’re an interdisciplinary scholar—and worse yet, someone who is often trying to actively persuade audiences—it can be tough to figure out what to wear when you’re going off to speak.

Nowadays it is pretty common for me to go to a university and speak to both a medical audience (M.D.’s with various specialties) and a feminist academic audience (Ph.D.’s in women’s studies and allied fields). Here’s the thing: If I want to be taken seriously by the M.D.’s—especially if I’m in a situation where I might have a chance to change the minds of a bunch of male docs about the treatment of children born with sex anomalies—I have to look something like a drug rep. I have to wear a dark suit, preferably a skirt suit, heels, make-up, done-up hair, etc.

But if I want to have the feminist scholars take me seriously (which I do, because they’re among my valued colleagues), looking like a drug rep just marks me as a clueless tool of the patriarchy. My feminist Ph.D. colleagues expect me to show up in relatively baggy clothes, wearing sensible shoes, with no make-up other than the kind of lip goo that keeps your lips from chapping in winter. Even the jewelry they expect is very different from what the docs expect. (Chico’s clunky versus Brooks Brothers’ sleek.)

So it’s pretty tough when I have to talk to both audiences in one day. The good news is, I can usually explain to my feminist academic colleagues that I’m dressed up because I’m pushing intersex rights later in the day. The funny thing, of course, is that it isn’t like the feminist colleagues don’t have norms that are nearly as strict as the docs’.... After all, they care what I’ve got on just as much as the docs—though they won’t quite say it that way.

I first encountered the issue of disciplinary dress when I worked in an undergraduate science program at Michigan State University. Having previously been in an all-humanities program, I was pleased to discover that the standard in the Big 10 sciences—what you wore if you wanted to be taken seriously—was a uniform consisting of comfortable jeans, a clean T-shirt, and some sneakers. Of course, not everyone approved of that uniform. There was a first-wave feminist in our program who, during my first few weeks as an assistant professor, called me into her office to tell me I had to dress much better than the men, because women were discriminated against and we couldn’t hope to climb the ladder if we didn’t dress well. She wanted me to wear purple polyester suits. No kidding. I didn’t switch to purple polyester. But when I went up for tenure and had to present to the committee on which she sat, I did wear a streak of purple in my hair. For some reason, she didn’t approve. The guys, meanwhile, thought it was funny and exemplary of why I made a cool colleague.

Conclusions? I don’t know. How about these:

  • Gender doesn’t predict who, in practice, will be supportive or oppressive of a woman academic.
  • Stated political allegiance doesn’t either.
  • Feminist scholars aren’t yet liberated from restrictive clothing norms, but at least they think about why they’re wearing what they’re wearing.
  • The current system of drug reps is really bad for patients, because it makes many male doctors think that sexy women are more important than evidence, and it perpetuates a system of sexism and heterosexism in medicine.
  • I’m willing to give in, locally, to sexism and heterosexism in medicine if it means I have a shot at globally reducing heterosexism and sexism in medicine.

I’m glad, most days, to work at home, where I can wear jeans, a T-shirt, a leopard print bra, and some nice heels. Or slippers. My own crazy discipline.

And here are some other insights on being a traveling academic:

  • If you decide, for a two-day trip, to keep it simple and bring just one pair of pants, you will, for sure, stain the pants early and in a very awkward place. Ditto tops. Consider this an inviolable law of nature.
  • The T.S.A. considers hummus a paste. One should therefore not attempt to travel with more than 3.2 ounces of it, unless one is willing to check one’s hummus.
  • Thank goodness for the penguin craze. My son now thinks it natural for mothers to go away for a while while the daddy takes care of the young. Of course, now when I return home, I am required to vomit fish.

This post originally appeared on the author's personal site.

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