It was interesting to me that nobody in yesterday’s comments talked about how a job candidate’s appearance and/or choice of clothing might affect the ways in which she or he is evaluated from their own experience, either as a candidate or as someone on a search committee or part of the hiring organization. Fortunately, I’ve never heard anything untoward said about any job candidate’s appearance in any department I’ve been a part of–and I’ve never had anyone make any comments whatsoever about my own appearance while interviewing for a job. I have heard people in other history departments complain about the inappropriate clothing choices of some job candidates–along the lines of either too casual or too revealing, for the most part.
There are a few instances I can think of where my physical appearance might explain a few (un)professional encounters. For example, when I was younger (late 20s, early 30s), I was subjected to greater disrespect at conferences and professional meetings, especially by men who were old enough to be my father (or older). I should note that some of my earliest writings were on masculinity, and the ways in which men’s authority (in my period and field) was built upon their their “mastery” of a household and on the labor of subordinates like wives, daughters, sons, servants, and slaves. (Hey, it was the 1990s–it seemed new then!)
When I gave seminars and conference papers that took this perspective for granted, I had a number of middle-aged and older male interlocutors who were just really, really angry with me. It was as if I asked them if they had stopped beating their wives yet. I was tempted to ask them if they were aware that I was writing about the seventeenth century, because their reactions seemed so oddly personal. (I should say that I’ve writtten only about pretty obscure people, not “Founding Fathers,” so I really didn’t get why these men were so het up about your Common Jonathans of colonial New England.)
In one especially vivid and disturbing instance, a man in his 50s who volunteered to attend my seminar grew increasingly red-faced and started rocking back-and-forth in his seat at the seminar table, clearly furious with me. He just disagreed with my ideas–fair enough, but why the histrionics? This gradually stopped happening–perhaps because nothing succeeds like success, and I managed to get my “radical” ideas published, get jobs, and to win tenure. But, along with a seat at the table come a few gray hairs, after all. I have always wondered if my youth (as well as my sex, natch) was especially offensive to these guys. Because I’ve heard this still happens to younger women scholars, I think there may be something to it.
My second example is about hair. I am a white woman with straight hair, so hair has never been all that fraught (or political) an issue for me–I have worn it very long, very short, and frequently in-between in my lifetime. When I was on the job market the first time, it was the late 1990s and I wore my hair in a flip, a little longer than chin length. One year into my job, I cut it all off in a pixie cut. When I came back to work (at my former university), a (stupid) man in another department asked me, eyes wide and with great trepidation, ”what does this mean?” I was tempted to say, “I’m going to become a nun!” or “I’m leaving my husband and turning GAY!” As far as I could tell, it meant that I cut my hair,which is nobody’s business but my own. This was my haircut when I went on the market the second time–I can’t say for sure, but I just felt that people treated me differently after adopting a more distinctive hairstyle. I have joked with friends that I’d like to go on the market, this time with a really femmy long-haired wig, just to test my theory.
How do you think appearance counts in the academic workplace? How has it worked for or against you, and how have you seen it work for or against others? (Historians are not known to be either terribly attractive or fashionable–for good reason, I might add, but not caring so much about physical appearances can have real advantages in creating a workplace that’s focused on the work at hand.) Do you women with large breasts think about your clothes a lot on job interviews? If you are gay, do you make an effort not to dress or appear gay? Has time or age changed either your body or appearance in ways you fear may affect you professionally? How do you deal with physical disabilities–either your own or those of co-workers? Has a haircut or a bad hair day had dramatic consequences for you? Dish!