October
28th 2009
Keeping up appearances: what about you?

Posted under: American history, Gender, Intersectionality, jobs, the body, women's history

madmen_fullbodyamlIt 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!

46 Comments »

46 Responses to “Keeping up appearances: what about you?”

  1. Clio Bluestocking on 28 Oct 2009 at 8:04 am #

    I have lived your haircut story, only I got comments like, “I didn’t know you were a lesbian.” Also, a few years earlier, I learned that red tights automatically make you a slut. Who knew? Once a student told me that I dress conservatively but my ideas were radical (you know, for Texas), and didn’t I think that was “sort of like false advertising?”

    More recently, I’ve found that people on campus, especially administrators, respond to me as if I have more authority than I actually do because I dress in something resembling suits, with a skirt and jacket (I call it the “uniform”). When I sneak on campus in something more casual, like jeans, I don’t get that response.

    This may sound horribly manipulative, but I find that being aware of the way people respond to the way that you dress and being able to alter your appearnace for a particular effect can be a very powerful tool. Not that *I’m* that good at it, but some people are.

  2. whitneyanne on 28 Oct 2009 at 8:14 am #

    I’m a short white chick with hip-length blonde dreads. At conferences (I’m a pre-prelim grad student, so I can’t speak to the job hunt experience — that may change my answer!), my dreads have only helped me. Makes me easy to spot and easy to remember. In fact, on no less than *three* separate occasions, Notable People In The Field have come up to me to talk about my hair, giving me just the opening and courage I need to schmooze a little. Quite convenient.

    (My dreads also tend to make my research look a bit hipper than it actually is, especially beside the typical gray-toned, brown-bobbed English grad student.)

    The questions are annoying (how long did it take you to do that?!), and old men tend to make obnoxious, if innocuous, jokes (think you can give me some of that?, points to his bald pate). But as long as I keep my whole look within the range of earthy, ethnic or elegant, I’ve found my hair is not only acceptable, but quite useful. Does this signal a shift?

  3. Kathleen Lowrey on 28 Oct 2009 at 8:20 am #

    Wow, this is interesting. I did have one job talk about 7 years ago, when I did still look pretty much like a student, at which a 50 something male member of the audience basically lost it. He got more and more agitated and then with a flourish *whipped out* the brown paper sack that I imagine had carried his lunch and began taking showily angry notes during my talk, and asked seethingly hostile questions afterward. The next day, I had to speak to him in his office and was actually a little bit afraid he was going to jump across his desk and start hitting me. It was LUNATIC, and yet the guy is well-known in the field and when I saw him a year later (surprise! I didn’t get that job) at a conference while I was standing with some senior colleagues he could not have been more gracious, as if we’d had some sort of pally previous interaction. My work has nothing to do with gender, and this guy has not been institutionalized and is apparently perfectly capable of behaving normally in public. It hadn’t occurred to me before that maybe it was just plain old sexism, but now that I think about it nothing else explains the sheer irrationality of it quite as well. Certainly debates about ideas can become heated, but his behavior was just wildly over the top.

  4. perpetua on 28 Oct 2009 at 8:23 am #

    I have to say that I never overheard or experienced anything objectionable on the job market regarding my appearance. My adviser is notorious for saying inappropriate things about his female students’ hair, clothes, boyfriends, and procreative decisions, but we have all agreed to tacitly ignore him because he seems to have an ADHD-related problem with self-censorship, and because he’s actually great to us (ie it doesn’t feel like sexual predation or as a way of silencing us by sexualizing us).

    I did however go on the job market pregnant – in fact I was almost eight months pregnant when I went for a job talk at flagship state u. I was nervous about it, because the department is full of older men, and because I’ve heard horror stories about personal remarks made about female candidates generally and pregnant ones in particular. I couldn’t wear a proper suit and there was NO hiding that belly. But I have to say again I didn’t directly experience any weirdness or negativity, and I got the job. In fact, among some faculty, it seemed to impress them that I was there pregnant (like, see, she doesn’t let her body/womanhood/real life affect her professional life). I also gave a fairly rocking job talk, and was relaxed and confident (being pregnant made me care a lot less what anybody thought, and I didn’t really think I’d get the job anyway).

    Generally, however, I tend to be fairly conscious about the way I dress. I bought a very expensive power suit for going on the market (no cleavage, but it did have both pants and a skirt), and I do like to wear suits to class and generally dress on the formal side. I also started to wear make up when teaching, and jewelry, in line with general guidelines about “professional” dress in women. I did this because I was young and young-looking and wanted it to be immediately clear who was in charge. I did get a little self-conscious about how boobalicious some of my tops were after hypnotizing a couple of 18 year old boys with my bosoms. I have to say, Clio, that I don’t think it’s manipulative to alter one’s appearance for the purpose of affecting people’s reactions. Someone can show up to a job interview in flip-flops and cut-off jeans but I can’t say I’d blame the committee for consciously or subconsciouly not taking hir seriously. Of course I think women are held to a different/ higher/ more complicated standard when it comes to looks and dress. I wish I didn’t have to go to extra effort to get people to take me seriously, definitely, but since I do – well, that’s the way it is.

    I can’t tell you how many colleagues have reported that students comment on their clothes in their evaluations! Female students are enraged by “frumpy” profs.

  5. Historiann on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:20 am #

    Kathleen–I’ve had hostile questions after job talks. I’m more offended by the people who can’t be bothered to pretend like they’re interested–including some who have nodded off! (I’m a pretty energetic lecturer, so I really don’t think it was me…) The guy you describe sounds like a complete tool–why were you friendly to him after he treated you that way? You were, after all, an invited guest. I think there’s more of an obligation to be courteous when someone’s on a job interview than at a conference.

    Clio B.: I have heard from other women friends that women’s looks and grooming is scrutinized in particular ways in Texas. (Friends have reported that people have asked them why they don’t curl and spray their hair and wear fake nails if they are in fact heterosexual women who want to find boyfriends, etc.) I think that short hair is read in a variety of ways–but the bottom line is that it’s not read as feminine or as submissive as long hair is. I frankly don’t want to take the time to “do” my hair (I was a teenager in the 1980s–I did my time already), but even that refusal to submit to the demands of long-hair grooming isn’t read as a neutral or personal choice, but as a political one.

    And, whitneyanne–I’m glad to hear that you get positive attention for your hair, but I wonder if a black woman with your hairstyle would be read the same way? (I do also wonder about the job market–there may be some kinds of institutions and some regions where your hairstyle won’t be appreciated. This is also true of my very short hairstyle, so I’m not suggesting that you change, just warning you that the reactions you get may not be all positive. But, who wants to work with a bunch of hair nazis anyway, right?)

    Perpetua: I’ve written before about the female professor’s wardrobe and appearance, and how students react to it. See here and here too, for example.

  6. squadratomagico on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:22 am #

    @ Diapsalmata: I don’t have dreads, but I have on occasion worn long microbraids with extra color woven in. And I’ve experienced the same thing: it’s a great ice-breaker. I was astounded by the way that people of all ages and races initiate conversations with me, in ways that my “normal” wavy-white-person hair does not!

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the chili peppers on RMP. Wonder what the gender breakdown is for reception of them?

  7. perpetua on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:32 am #

    @squadrato: re chili peppers on RMP – Okay, I did go to RMP once, and looked at my (now former) colleagues’ ratings. It’s not a scientific survey, but my preliminary observations were this – male professors were overwhelmingly more likely to have been given a chili pepper, and many of those were not what I would call young or conventionally handsome. Apparently being okay-looking, middle aged, and in a position of authority is enough for a man to be hot! But it was sort of an interesting find, considering how women are scrutinized for their looks.

  8. squadratomagico on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:38 am #

    Perpetua, at first I was surprised by this, too! But I wonder: maybe this has more to do with the ways in which conventional power relationships are eroticized in our culture? It may be easier for female students to crush on middle-aged male professors, than for male students to crush on female profs. (Of course, this is a heteronormative analysis…) Just a thought.

  9. Historiann on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:45 am #

    Interesting results. I’m sure Squadrato is right. (I sure don’t want any students crushing on me, so to this extent the current system works for me just fine.)

    Why don’t straight women have higher standards when it comes to their partners’ looks and physiques?

  10. squadratomagico on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Ooh, yikes — wrote that first comment too quickly. There’s some unintentionally hilarious grammar there.

  11. perpetua on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Yes, I think so, too. The only place female teacher- male student relationships seem to be eroticized is on TV (basically every TV show about high school or college kids involves a teacher-student relationship and 90% of the time the teacher is female). A gross generalization, but female students are more likely to flirt, and male students are more likely to try to dominate/ control. (My partner, a man, gets flirted with constantly by his female students. I’ve never been flirted with, except in a slightly creepy condescending way.) As we all know, powerful women are simply not sexy in our society, and sexy women are only permitted to be powerful as sex objects.

  12. PorJ on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:54 am #

    O.K., I want to shake things up a bit here. Its easy to condemn the leering dirty ol’ Professor and the lunatic academic whose personal insecurities and anxieties are intensified by the work of newer scholars, etc., etc.

    These people exist, are really archetypes, and we could have found them complaining about the New Criticism in the 1930s, or revisionism in the 1970s, etc. and acting inappropriately towards graduate students, undergraduate students, or their colleagues’ wives.

    Misogyny and patriarchy exist, they are endemic to our profession, and both men and women need to be cognizant of the problem and work to remedy it.

    *THAT* having been said: I can’t be the only person on this board who has been (inappropriately?) impressed and drawn towards (attracted to?) a scholar who’s physical attributes, intelligence, style, etc. I’ve found attractive at a conference. Or even in in the interview process. I think being cognizant of those feelings is important – admitting they exist are the first step. But what then? Men are both more obvious and oblivious about this issue. But I think it affects women, as well. I think there must be cases where women have attended panels and chatted with, and interviewed applicants, who they considered “hot.” What then? Simply “acting professional” is the obvious answer that we all like to think we adhere to – but what does that mean, precisely? And why is so difficult that we have these conversations constantly?

    That’s a much more complex and difficult conversation than pointing out misogyny and patriarchy.

  13. Notorious Ph.D. on 28 Oct 2009 at 10:25 am #

    I deliberately spent the four months before my first run at the job market losing 15 pounds, and lost another 15 before the next run. The overall total put me in the healthy weight range, rather than the slightly overweight that I’ve always been. But I wasn’t doing it to be healthy. It was a job strategy, just like cranking out another article to put on the CV. I had a lifetime of experience that told me that people make all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about overweight people, including that they’re lazy, and I didn’t want that anywhere in the interviewers’ heads.

  14. life_of_a_fool on 28 Oct 2009 at 10:31 am #

    I’ve never explicitly heard any negative (or positive) comments about candidates’ appearances while on the job market or while involved in hiring, or colleagues more generally. I’ve also never heard or seen a visible reaction to colleagues who are pregnant or have some sort of disability (other than concern for the person, and how students were affected (because of missed classes, long delays in returning work, etc.), in the latter case). I’m also in a field not known for its fashion sense, which is nice.

    Oh, but I have seen men openly and very obviously leer at women at conferences. It was gross and creepy and horrifying (the instances of it being as obvious as the person I am thinking of have been rare, though there are more subtle examples as well).

    I have wondered about what would happen if I manipulated my dress or appearance more (I don’t much, usually because I’m tremendously lazy). It would be interesting. . . I’ve also been told, basically, that I would be threatening to some older men in the department (most of whom have, thankfully, retired) because I’m young(ish) and single.

  15. Deborah on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Thank you, Historiann, for this post. The subject of appearance has been on my mind since I’m on the market for the first time this fall. Although I don’t know if I’ll have interviews yet, I’ve been considering whether I should cut my hair in the event that I do. I have a lot of hair. It’s ostentatiously blonde (natural color, though), and it’s been long since I’ve been in grad school. I like it this way and don’t want to cut it, but, though no one has ever commented in a way that would make me think this, I fear it gives the wrong impression. Maybe I’ll compromise, cut it to just under my shoulders, and wear it pulled back. Still, I wish I could just be myself and not have to think about dealing with the “Blonde” stereotype — it is so NOT my personality.

    Also, on the subject of disability, it’s hard to know what to say and what not to say (and when), especially if you have a disability that may seem to others as just an oddity, or may not be apparent to them at all. I have a pretty severe vision impairment (involving, among other things, photophobia and nystagmus) that can affect how I interact with people in unfamiliar settings. At the same time, since I don’t need a cane or a dog to get around and don’t even wear glasses (except sunglasses), most people don’t immediately perceive that I can’t see very well, that I might be squinting because the sunlight coming in the window (or the florescent lighting) is too bright, that, because of the lighting, I might have trouble making eye contact, and that I cannot read name tags at conferences. Although in the classroom this has not proven to be a problem (I let students know I can’t see very well and adjust the lighting as needed), I cringe at the thought of what to say and/or not say in the context of an interview.

  16. perpetua on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:22 am #

    Deborah, if you have AHA interviews, whether private or in the pit, I strongly recommend that you tell the person who sets up your interview on the phone about your disability when you make initial arrangements. I know it can be a difficult topic to bring up, but it is important. The room you enter might be dark/ too bright and full of people and difficult to navigate. I had a hearing disability when I first went on the market (moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears), and I found some of my AHA interviews excruciating. In one, I literally could not hear what the questioner was asking. He was a man, and had a foreign accent – both traits exacerbated my ability to hear him. Asking him politely to speak up didn’t help – I think he assumed that I didn’t understand the question. It was a disaster. I hadn’t been able to tell the search chairs about my disability because it was such an emotional topic for me at the time and I hadn’t come to terms with the fact that I was losing my hearing. But when it came time for an on campus, I did mention it, and it made a big difference – they went out of their way to accommodate me, but without making me feel odd or high maintanence (of course this is their legal obligation, but they did it well).

  17. Paul on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:27 am #

    I never actually went into the academic job market, but with job interviews in general there doesn’t seem to be that much confusion for guys – just show up in a suit and tie, clean and well-groomed, unless you know for certain that more casual dress is fine, and you’re unlikely to go too badly wrong. What I worry about more is how I present myself in speech and body language – I get nervous easily and I’ve never been able to hide it, so it’s a question of whether I can hide it enough so that I don’t look bad, or not.

  18. Deborah on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:47 am #

    Thank you, perpetua. I hand’t even thought about bringing it up on the phone, and that seems a good way to alert them without the dnager of being emotional or overbearing in person. I’m in English not history, but I’ve seen the pit (I didn’t know it was called that!) at MLA in the past and would dread trying to find the right place to go.

  19. John S. on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:55 am #

    My appearance *may* have affected my reception on the job market, but not in the way I expected. I was worried about my age when I went on the market–had my first AHA interview when I was 26, my first on-campus when I was 27–and was very concerned that I would look like a baby-face. So I wore a goatee as much for professional reasons as personal ones; I thought it added a couple of years that I needed. I did worry about how a beard would be received. My family was convinced that only “radicals” had beards and that I would thus be too “out there” on a job interview. Of course, I now know that this was a slightly ridiculous sentiment, esp. for our department; at any given time, about 75% of the men here are sporting some facial hair. But I don’t know, maybe facial hair is a stylistic thing elsewhere in the country. I know that the “looking the right age” question is one others face, however.

    I say my appearance may have impacted my reception because now that I look back on it, there might have been some flirting that pushed the boundaries of appropriate behavior on one of my job talks–on the part of a gay male faculty member on my search committee. I was pretty clueless, being nervous, inexperienced (my first job talk), and not expecting men to ever have to deal with problems like this. I think if something similar happened nowadays I’d have a better sense of what was going on, but at the time it was just a matter of me getting home and saying “Huh.”

  20. squadratomagico on 28 Oct 2009 at 11:59 am #

    Perpetua’s point is a good one — definitely bring it up. I, too, have a significant, though invisible, disability… but I tend to forget about it because I’ve had it since birth and it seems “normal” to me. I’ve always had strategies to work around it, but the fact is, I probably am missing some things without realizing it. Keeps me eccentric, I guess.
    Deborah, I also would urge you to keep your hair as you prefer. Putting it up or back should be just fine — don’t cut it if you don’t want to.

  21. Indyanna on 28 Oct 2009 at 12:28 pm #

    I don’t recall any issues relating to ME and what I think yesterday’s post colorfully referred to as “haberdashorial” issues, I’m pretty much middle of the road pre-rumpled, stylistically. But sitting on the other side of the fence, as a department member onc time, I was sitting in the second row of a fairly sparsely-attended job talk. Halfway through, a fairly but not greatly senior member of the department, who may have been on leave, came in, dressed in a ratty gray sweatshirt and an even rattier pair of blue sweatpants that I can only describe with the epithet of a “mouldy britch.” It was only when he sat down in the third row and pretty much sprawled back over three seats that it appeared that the britch in question was as holey as it was unholly, and that he was basically–if inadvertently–what’s a nice word here, “crotching” the candidate. I really did and do think this was not intended as a statement, but in its inadvertence it was fully as disrespectful if not moreso than if it had been a fabric statement about the dossier. To hir credit, the candidate appeared unfazed (maybe glazed) and got through the talk just fine. I was pretty appalled. I don’t recall if ze got the job, though.

    The other sartorial thing I associate with all talks, whether job talks or conference talks, is that the best place for same-day practicing of the talk is over a hot ironing board in the hotel room while preparing to dress. Wherein the ironing table serves as the dias and the paper hopefully doesn’t go up in flames. And hopefully also, some bigfoot in the field is not in the next room, saying who IS that anyway!?

  22. Ruth on 28 Oct 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    In 25 years in the profession there are only two job talks where I remember what the candidate was wearing. One of them was my own. I was 8 months pregnant and did not want to go out and buy a dressy maternity dress to wear only once, so I borrowed one. It was pale pink, a color I have not worn in my adult life, and I felt very self-conscious in it. Everyone studiously forbore to comment on my pregnancy. I gave the talk standing up but asked if I could take questions sitting down. Got the job.

    The other one was a male candidate whose jacket was too small. He wore it buttoned and it really stretched and gapped. Looked really bad. He got the offer.

    One piece of advice that I got from a colleague and have passed along to my students: if you have a phone interview, dress up for it. It can be hard to get yourself into a professional mindset if you’re in your bathrobe.

  23. Susan on 28 Oct 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    I would say for job interviews, neat and tidy is important, more than style (at least in history, where we are all pretty dowdy). The best advice I got was to make sure I was comfortable in whatever I was wearing — if you’re not comfortable you will be less relaxed. So if you buy a suit, wear it a few times so you know how it feels to live in it for a day when you are in and out of people’s offices, etc.
    That said, I suspect Ruth is right and clothing in and of itself doesn’t make or break you.

  24. Historiann on 28 Oct 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    Deborah–Squadrato’s advice is correct. So long as your hair isn’t distracting you (i.e. falling in your face, requiring your attention) it will be fine. In fact, based on my experiences, I would advise waiting to cut your hair until AFTER you get the job you want!

    Ruth’s experiences are instructive, at least for other historians: maybe clothes don’t matter, and even really bad clothes don’t count against you. (Sorry about that pale pink maternity dress, Ruth!) The only comments about clothing I’ve heard that sound like they might have worked to a candidate’s detriment had to do with lack of appropriateness: they were too casual, or too revealing, or both. Lack of fashion sense has never been a hindrance, as most historians can affirm!

    Sadly, I think Notorious was perhaps right about weight being held against her.

  25. Historiann on 28 Oct 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    Oh, and p.s. about Indyanna’s colleague flashing the job candidate: if I were that candidate, I would have been very disturbed by it, but I’m sure it’s probably that guy’s favorite “nightmare job interview” story!

    It’s like a sign my high-school history teacher used to have on the threshhold of his classroom: “All people bring happiness here–some by entering, others by leaving.” So all job interviews are instructive: some lead by example, others give examples to avoid.

  26. susurro on 28 Oct 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    oh the stories I could tell, if I wasn’t rushing & on colleagues laptop …

    just wanted to leave you something OT abt Barbie: http://bit.ly/2XDW5C (read explanation in left column before clicking thru photos)

  27. Emily on 28 Oct 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    I’m still an undergrad, so I have little experience of the job market, academic or otherwise. This past summer, though, I had my first job which required professional attire, and I struggled a great deal with what the right level of gendering should be in my attire. I usually dress in a fairly androgynous–even masculine–way, and while I tried to femme things up a bit for the office setting, that territory was sometimes very difficult to negotiate. My colleagues in my own office were fine with my conservative button-downs and slacks, and I could even probably have gotten away with being more androgynous than I was–but when I went to a professional conference in a women’s suit (pants, not skirt), some of the men there made comments to my face about how my attire made me look like a man–despite the fact that I was trying specifically to look more like a woman than usual.

    Do these concerns about gendered clothing come up in academia? Do you folks encounter any hostility directed towards women’s styles of dress that are too masculine? My experience in the history department at my university is that it isn’t like my office experience, but I obviously don’t see the behind-the-scenes professional dynamics.

  28. perpetua on 28 Oct 2009 at 4:14 pm #

    (I just wanted to jump in and add that the powersuit I bought – mentioned above – was something that I loved not because of the way it looked or the way I looked in it but because of the way it made me feel – confident and grown-up. I still wear it to class sometimes.)

    I have to say as well, in defense of historians and their fashion sense, almost all the 30something women I know in my field are astonishingly stylish (I am not including myself). Not that being stylish or “dowdy” has anything to do with the price of eggs.

  29. Anastasia on 28 Oct 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    interesting reading.

    The only comments regarding appearance and job performance I’ve ever had were from non-academics. My MIL works in an office and she assumes that I ought to be wearing suits. I don’t wear suits. If you walk around the professional conference for my field, you’ll see very few women in suits. But she has made a few comments about how I ought to dress if anyone is going to take me seriously. Same with the overly long (in her estimation) hair and my persistent lack of makeup. Unhelpfully, she was actually with me when I had my first conference interview–she was watching my daughter–and made it clear that she thought I was completely underdressed and didn’t have a chance. I got the job…that’s sort of beside the point.

    The other person who commented on it was a random stranger I was chatting with at the park. My daughter was talking about moving and she asked me if we were planning to move. I told her maybe…I had a job interview. Oh, what do you. I’m interviewing to be a professor. She looked me up and down and then literally looked down her nose at me and said: “Do you really think you’re credible as a professor?” I was a little stunned. I told her I had a second interview and that they were flying me out for it and that seemed to convince her, but yeah. I’m not sure if it was the way I was dressed or my age or the fact that I was climbing around the playground equipment or what.

    My other thought was that yes, as a woman with large breasts, I think a lot about how to clothe them appropriately and in a flattering manner without drawing attention to them. i didn’t think the top I chose for my last interview was particularly low cut but I was interviewing with a panel and all of them looked at my chest. All. of. them. Men and women. Oy.

  30. New Kid on the Hallway on 28 Oct 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    I wanted to follow up on Notorious’s comment and say that while I haven’t managed to lose any weight (maybe 5 lbs this summer which I’m probably gaining back), in the non-academic context I do worry about being overweight looking for a legal job, because for whatever reason I have encountered very few overweight lawyers (of course, there are far fewer overweight people in this state generally, since they all ski and climb mountains and whatnot). I didn’t worry about that in the same way at all when I was on the academic market (admittedly I was thinner then). Actually, I should say that I’ve met very few overweight WOMEN lawyers (not the same for men!).

    It’s funny also to see the jokes about historians/other academics being dowdy, because on law-profession blogs I’ve also seen jokes about Biglaw employees being dowdy (I don’t think this is necessarily the case, but the idea is that if you spend 80 hours a week at the office you’re probably not at your sartorial best).

    I don’t know if this connects to Emily’s comment or not, but I think by far the criticism I’ve most often seen/heard directed at an academic woman re: her appearance is that she’s dressing too revealingly. That is, if someone is clean and tidy, it’s not commented on, if they’re dressed fashionably, it’s not really commented on, and even if they’re dressed frumpily it’s not commented on – but wear something “sexy” or low-cut, and it will garner reactions. (And yet conversely, skirt suits, which definitively mark women as not-like men, are the “conservative” option, which baffles my classmates.) Which may be why academic fashion gravitates towards the hip/funky rather than the overtly sexy?

    As for the androgyny question: I don’t dress at all androgynously, so take this with a grain of salt, because it’s just from my limited observations, no real personal experience. But I know some women who dress rather androgynously/masculine-ly, and I think that people in academia often assume therefrom that they’re lesbians (which in fact the ones I know are). I think, generally, academia is way more accepting of the androgynous look than the professional world is (based on my little bit of legal experience), though of course there are exceptions to that in the academic world – it would probably depend on the specific institutional culture. (At Rural Utopia, the joke was that lesbians had the best dating pool in town; at Former College, I didn’t know a single out lesbian prof, and GLBT students were from my perspective very closeted. In my job searches this year, I’ve met one identifiably lesbian lawyer, and in fact, while I know gay men at school, I’m not sure I know of any lesbians. Hmmm.) (And I don’t mean to say that androgyny and being a lesbian are the same thing, but that many people, especially but not exclusively non-academics, may equate the two.)

  31. Susan on 28 Oct 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    I think academics are probably less fashion conscious than the rest of the professional world, or have less rigid uniforms. I certainly know people who have dressed professionally but not in a particularly feminine way. My take on it is this: if it’s important to you that you be comfortable dressing a certain way, dress in a version of that at your interview. That said, you can wear dress slacks and a blouse and jacket and look very professional, if possibly also androgynous.

    For years I have envied men who know that “I now put on a suit”. We’re still working it out. I’ve finally got a bunch of pairs of pants that fit well and look nice, which I can wear with all sorts of variations of blouses/tops/jackets/sweaters. It’s simplified my dressing enormously!

  32. The Rebel Lettriste on 28 Oct 2009 at 6:34 pm #

    I just have to say that I hate “academic dress.” It depresses me enormously, and so I try to undo it in as many ways as I can. It is a combination of cheap and timid that just sucks.

    I’m young, and female, and not unattractive I think. I also am tall, and thin, and lack any kind of tits. I don’t think academics know quite what to do with me.

    I am sure that my (sample sale) high end designer suit and complicated glasses did NOT go over well in High Plains State when I interviewed there. Despite the fact that I am a rather plain spoken, down to earth, native Midwesterner, I looked funny. In that town, kids stopped and stared with open mouths at me. And honestly, I am not that unusual looking for a skinny white woman. It was enough to make me weep with relief when they rejected me, as I knew I’d about die if I had to live there.

    I wore the same outfit for the job I got, where I now seem to be known as the “fancy dresser” in the department. (Here, flip flops are de rigeur so it doesn’t take much to impress them.)

    And in my experience, oddly, it is the tough-as-nails old school feminists who come after me at conferences. It’s as if they have to punish me to toughen me up or something. They are in no way generous. And they are also not generally attractive, either.

  33. wini on 28 Oct 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    I was reading this post and the comments with interest until I got to the post that calls “old school feminists,” “not generally attractive.” In other words: “and they’re ugly, too!”

    That comment upset me, so I’ll share my experience.

    I like academic dress. We’re not paid well, many of us are paying back student loans, and I like that I can be unremarkable without spending a lot of money. I don’t care about what other people wear, and expect the same favor paid back to me. I’m always disappointed when this is not the case. I take care to be clean, neat, groomed (but no make-up), and to wear nice clothes. I have unpredictable hair (curly), and it is a great cause of stress for me. Right now I’m keeping it long so I can pin it back on disaster days without a problem. I love that some of my colleagues care about how they look, just like I love that some of my colleagues care about their pets. It’s great that we can care about things outside our discipline.

    And, I’m yet another woman that interviewed very pregnant for the tenure track job she got. I splurged on a suit, I had 3 interviews and a conference, and it was really worth it. I knew I looked fine, and I never had to stress about what to wear during the interview/conference.

  34. thefrogprincess on 28 Oct 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    Just a few sporadic thoughts: I’m not yet on the job market (will be soon though). The only thing I’ve given much thought to is what I am going to do about my large chest. Button down shirts are generally a problem since they gape. Non-button down shirts are often too casual. And it takes a monumental effort to find a shirt that doesn’t show cleavage in some form or other. I’m usually fine with that but I’m aware of the implications and I don’t want that to be an issue on the job market.

    Notorious PhD, I hadn’t thought about actively losing weight for the job market but I’ll have to give it some serious thought. Even though many people have told me that I should lose weight if I want a man, I’ve generally rejected that, thinking that if I lost weight and then the men came a-running, that would make me feel worse. But for a job? I might just have to.

    On the dreads issue: not only do I think some black women would have difficulty being taken seriously with dreads (or at least in certain fields), from some corners of the black community, dreads are looked down upon. I know my father hates them (he’s quite old, but still). Then again, black women can never do right with their hair choices.

    Historiann said, on the sly: Why don’t straight women have higher standards when it comes to their partners’ looks and physiques?

    Some of us do have high standards, which can mean quite the lonely life, especially in academia. What I find very interesting, though, is that I’m constantly told to lower my standards. Somehow I doubt men are getting this advice.

  35. notyettenured on 28 Oct 2009 at 9:45 pm #

    I absolutely feel that my appearance has had an impact on my professional reception. Being a woman who appears younger than my age and (trying not to toot my own horn) who is “hot” has led interviewers/students/peers to take me less seriously than I would wish.

    Sadly, when I am on the other end of the table, I have found myself taking young and attractive women less seriously than they deserve. I remind myself of how much I have resented the same, but it’s nonetheless a knee-jerk reaction. We have a culture that strongly associates femininity and good lucks with lack of intellect.

    I now have my hair cut lesbian-short, and I almost always wear slacks, button-down shirts, and glasses when in academic settings (altho I can’t stomach jackets, there are limits to how straight I’ll go). The androgynous appearance helps, I think.

    My interview advice for younger women who want their work given equal consideration is to de-emphasize sex appeal in their clothing choices. I am not saying this out of prudery. I don’t associate “professionalism” with lack of sexuality. I just think it’s the best way to avoid being dismissed.

  36. Paul S. on 28 Oct 2009 at 10:41 pm #

    For years I have envied men who know that “I now put on a suit”. We’re still working it out.

    You might envy it a little less if you have a really thick neck like I do, so that even the widest collars feel like a constant, albeit gentle, strangulation.

    Seriously, though, women have a much heavier burden when it comes to being judged according to looks and dress. From what I can tell, biases related to physical appearance do exist for men – both biases against men who are considered physically unattractive and/or unfashionably dressed, and biases against men who look TOO attractive or fashionable – but they generally don’t seem to be nearly as strong or as widespread as they are for women.

  37. perpetua on 29 Oct 2009 at 6:09 am #

    @thefrogprincess – I probably shouldn’t dispense unasked for fashion advice, but you might think about a suit jacket, or jacket with regular slacks. That way, you can wear a shell or a non-button down shirt underneath and still not be too casual. (My boobs normally are normal, but while nursing they grew to epic proportions and I couldn’t wear button-downs either.) My suit shell has a high round collar, not revealing at all. If it’s winter you can even wear a turtleneck with a jacket.

  38. The Rebel Lettriste on 29 Oct 2009 at 7:32 am #

    Wini,
    I am the daughter of an old school feminist, and I am a feminist myself! I in no way meant that old school feminists were/are universally “unattractive.”

    Rather, I meant that the most hostile critical receptions I have ever gotten have come from older feminists. And those women were not attractive–either in their affect or their appearance.

    Like the hostile questioner (a big name in the field) who sat with her arms crossed, frowning, furiously taking notes, shaking her head, and who made the first comment of the panel, directed at me, which was, “I am not buying this.” And who I later discovered regularly tells her female advisees that she feels sorry for them because their scholarly lives “are over” if they decide to marry, much less have children.

    I think that among academics, “feminism” can frequently apply more fully to one’s scholarship than to one’s behavior.

    Also, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be fashionable. Everything “designer” I own was bought second hand or at a sample sale.

  39. Historiann on 29 Oct 2009 at 7:38 am #

    thefrogprincess–I second perpetua’s wardrobe advice. Invest in a good quality jacket (or tailored-looking sweater jacket) that fits well (no gaps, you can lift your arms over your head, etc.) and you can wear knit tops underneath that pack well and cover your cleavage. Even small-breasted women can be surprised how large their pregnancy and “nursing boobs” are, so this advice is not just for larger-breasted women.

    I am disturbed, but not surprised, by New Kid’s comments about weight. As in other arenas, men have more latitude when it comes to weight.

    It’s interesting how much of the conversation here seems to revolve around the fact that women can’t be perceived as too big or stand out too much (i.e. take up too much space mentally as well as physically.) I acknowledge that this is what I’m saying, too. Sigh.

    Sorry to have been checked out of the conversation last night–big snow here (!) so I was shoveling out…

  40. Indyanna on 29 Oct 2009 at 11:05 am #

    @New Kid. In the Philadelphia Standard Metropolitan Litigation Area, from what I can see, there are LOTS of plus-size male lawyers. They seem to have rhetorized it to advantage, though, with visual references to things like “bigfoot litigator” “gravitas,” “courtroom heavyweight,” whereas they may think that their young female associates write briefs on the treadmill or something. My grandfather was a lawyer in a time and place where “rotund” was some sort of compliment, and I heard about him that if he hadn’t cultivated a rounded appearance by 30, people would assume he wasn’t making enough to feed his big family, and it would become a self-fulfilling perception. On lawyerly haberdashorial culture, my trajectory took me (very) briefly through a law firm, and when a partner was dressed up everyone thought and assumed they were “on trial.” As a layman, it took me the longest time to figure out that this term didn’t mean that the DA had indicted them, but rather that they had a case that was in the courtroom! As in, “I’m on trial next week, so no, we can’t have lunch, even though we’ve been talking about it for months…” Talk about how lay language differs from shop jargon!

  41. The Bittersweet Girl on 29 Oct 2009 at 5:15 pm #

    Well, there’s so much I’d like to say on this subject but I’ll focus on two comments:

    Re: Job market dress and especially hotel interviews at AHA or MLA: I was recommended to wear pants because those hotel interviews are often rather strangely organized. The horror story I heard was about a woman in a knee-length skirt who was interviewed by a man who *sat on the floor* right in front of her. Geez.

    Re: Boobs. I’ve got ‘em in spades and I’ve had far too many occasions when male students leered at me or stared as if mesmerized during class. (As if I couldn’t see them. Little bastards). But, in my experience, the ol’ suit jacket has one thing going for it: it distracts from the boobs. I never felt like anyone noticed my boobs when I was dressed in my interview suits.

  42. clio's disciple on 29 Oct 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    For the last several years I have interviewed for jobs fat, because, well, I am fat. Losing 15 pounds would not make a difference in that fact. No search committee member made any comments about my weight, but I can’t speak to what they might have been thinking. I did get an offer, but I certainly had many rejections as well.

    For those of you who find it difficult to find clothes that fit well, it may be well worthwhile to pay a tailor to alter one suit jacket to fit. I do think it’s important to interview in something that actually fits you, that is even, if possible, comfortable–the whole process is stressful enough without adding unnecessary physical discomfort into the situation.

  43. Comrade PhysioProf on 30 Oct 2009 at 1:36 am #

    I dress like a total fucking slob all the fucking time, and it has absolutely zero effect on whether I am treated with professional respect. This is, of course, one of the benefits of my white male privilege.

  44. Caukee on 30 Oct 2009 at 4:27 am #

    As one with much experience of large breasts and button-downs, I second the advice to get to a tailor. While there, look into having button-down shirts tailored. [Maybe I'm spoiled by all the military here, and this isn't widely available.] A good tailor should be able to walk you through finding the right shirt, one that can then be fitted without gaping. Some folks need them made from “scratch”, but not most.

  45. dance on 31 Oct 2009 at 11:54 am #

    I have clearly missed the conversation, but for the archives:

    My standard teaching/conference uniform is a skirt with a twin-set and a scarf (not always official matching twinsets, but always a knit top with a cardigan). Ideally with boots, usually opaque tights. Lots of sleeveless tops, which no one has ever said anything about.

    I get a lot of clothing comments from colleagues and office staff, but I think that’s because the scarves (sometimes the skirts) are usually colorful patterns. I do not remember EVER seeing a student comment on my appearance on evals. I pretend RMP doesn’t exist, so I don’t know about that.

    I recommend trying out scarves. By giving people something to focus on, I’m much more comfortable being looked at. They draw attention to the face and chest, but I don’t have to worry that people are staring at my boobs because there is a six-color complicated pattern they could easily be mesmerized by. Long hanging fabric also distracts from the very common too-tightness around my hips that always looks so obvious to me. They are also often strategic in case of disasters at professional meals. (I’m not particularly large-breasted, so I don’t know if that works in that context)

  46. Historiann on 31 Oct 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    Dance, love this:

    I pretend RMP doesn’t exist, so I don’t know about that.

    It’s the only way to go. Why should we waste our beautiful minds on randomslander.com?

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